WASHINGTON — In heated exchanges with his national security team in recent weeks, President Donald Trump repeatedly made clear he saw little incentive for the United States to be involved in Syria’s intractable civil war.
Then he pushed the U.S. military back into the quagmire.
In doing so, Trump is trying to confront a dilemma that haunted his predecessor, Barack Obama. Syria’s seven-year civil war presents few fast or easy solutions for the U.S., yet the geopolitical rivalries at play, the presence of the Islamic State group and other extremists, and the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad government make the situation impossible to ignore.
Thus far, Trump and his top advisers have sent mixed messages about what Friday’s U.S., British and French strikes may mean for his administration’s future commitment in Syria.
The strikes themselves were limited — 105 weapons launched against three targets. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described the action as a “one-time shot” in retaliation for the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons in an April 7 attack that killed more than 40 people.
Trump, however, cast the strikes in more sweeping terms, promising he was ready to keep the U.S. military engaged if Syrian President Bashar Assad were to use deadly gases again.
“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Trump said in a televised address to the nation from the White House on Friday night.