Washington (AFP) – A day after this week’s apparent chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun, Donald Trump declared himself deeply affected by the horrific images coming out the Syrian town — and sounded a clear warning to Bashar al-Assad.
Twenty-four hours later, the American president ordered the first-ever US military strike against the Syrian regime.
Here are the key moments in three days that saw a dramatic reversal by Trump — once considered an isolationist strongly opposed to such military intervention — on the Syrian conflict.
– Tardy reaction –
On Tuesday, the day of the attack, Trump was slow to formally react, drawing fire from hawkish members of his Republican Party, led by Senator John McCain.
McCain slammed the administration for recent comments indicating it no longer saw Assad’s departure as a priority in Syria, calling it a “disgraceful chapter in American history.”
Trump’s eventual response, in the form of a statement issued later in the day, condemned a “heinous” and “reprehensible” attack that “cannot be ignored by the civilized world.”
He placed responsibility squarely on Assad — but also deflected blame onto his predecessor Barack Obama for failing to enforce a previous “red line” over chemical weapons use on Damascus.
And he offered no indication whether, or how, the United States intended to respond.
– Trump tone shifts –
On Wednesday, Trump’s tone began to toughen. He described himself as powerfully affected by pictures of the Khan Sheikhun victims in agony, which he said had “an enormous impact” on him.
The president showed unusual emotion during a White House news conference, evoking the “small children and even beautiful little babies” whose deaths were “an affront to humanity.”
“That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines,” he said, warning: “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
“My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much… You’re now talking about a whole different level.”
The about-face was confirmed Thursday as Washington further hardened its stance on the Syrian president, going so far as to openly call for his departure.
“With the acts that he has taken, it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
– Standoff at the UN –
As the United States’ stance shifted, talks at the UN Security Council on a resolution to investigate the attack ran aground, faced with the refusal of veto-wielding Russia to expose its Syrian ally to a UN-run inquiry.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the world body, brandished images of lifeless child victims of the attack, and warned of possible unilateral action should the UN fail to act.
Speaking from the presidential airplane Air Force One, Trump spoke of the imminence of military action.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” he said. “Something should happen.”
– Punitive strike –
A few hours later, two American destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles toward the Shayrat airfield in central Syria.
From his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he had earlier greeted Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a somber-faced Trump called on “all civilized nations” to work together to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria.