Donald Trump's Syria policy untangled: America First or Syria's hero standing up to barbaric attacks on 'beautiful babies'?

Undated handout photo issued by the US Navy of USS Porter (DDG 78) firing a tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea, as Britain backed the US missile strike on a Syrian air base as an "appropriate response" to Bashar Assad regime's "barbaric" chemical attack. 
Undated handout photo issued by the US Navy of USS Porter (DDG 78) firing a tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea, as Britain backed the US missile strike on a Syrian air base as an "appropriate response" to Bashar Assad regime's "barbaric" chemical attack.  Credit: Seaman Ford Williams/US Navy/PA

Donald Trump made headlines during his presidential election for his blithe flip-flops on policy, and handbrake turns in his politics.

As President things are no different. And nowhere perhaps is this more evident than in his approach to the Syrian civil war.

Mr Trump has long opposed US foreign military intervention.  After the chemical attack in Damascus stole the lives of hundreds of civilians in 2013, Mr Trump tweeted: ‘President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside.’

In championing his “America First” doctrine, Mr Trump told his supporters on the campaign trail the slaughter unfolding in "Syria is not our problem".

So when as President he authorised the the US’s only attack against the Assad regime in the country’s six-year-long civil war, it came as a dizzying about-turn.

Moments before sitting down to dinner with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president at his luxury private club in Florida earlier this month, Mr Trump sent 59 Tomahawks careering towards a Syrian government airbase.

It was in response to a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province that left some eighty people – including many children - dead.

In this picture taken on Tuesday April 4, 2017, Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, cries as he holds his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack, in Khan Sheikhoun town, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. Alyousef also lost his wife, two brothers, nephews and many other family members in the attack that claimed scores of his relatives. Credit: Alaa Alyousef/Via AP

But for Mr Trump, the decision seemed as much about targeting Barack Obama as it did Assad.

In his first statement delivered in the White House rose garden, he belittled the former president for missing, in the 2013 first chemical attack, a "great opportunity" to deal with Assad. 

"It is now my responsibility. It was a great opportunity missed," said Mr Trump (who has himself never missed an opportunity to needle Mr Obama).

And it was an occasion to strike fear into the hearts of new rivals. The President was about to have a difficult conversation with Mr Jinping about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Deploying the missile strike showed he meant business. 

"There could not be a better confluence of opportunity for Trump to depict himself as a decisive leader willing to use military action," General John Allen, the former US envoy in the anti-Isil coalition, told The Telegraph at the time. 

"With this Trump put the Assad regime on notice, and sent warnings to the Putin, Jinping and Kim Jong-un regimes too," Gen Allen added.

Aftermath of the US missile attack on a Syrian military airbase. 07/04/2017 Credit: Sputnik/Camera Press/РИА Новости

Syrian opponents of Assad rejoiced. After years of standing idly by under Mr Obama as the slaughter in Syria unfolded, America seemed back in the business of regime change. 

Qusai Zakaria, a Syrian who survived the 2013 chemical attack, learned the news as I was speaking with him on the phone: "Oh my dear God. Oh my God. Thank you so much!" 

"I am going to name my son Donald, if I have one," he said. "This man is a hero. He has balls."

But one missile strike on an aircraft hangar does not regime change make. So what is America's plan? What happens next?

It's a question even some of Mr Trump's government aides are struggling to answer. Syria experts and policy analysts inside the state department describe a chaotic situation, as they try second guess their new commander-in-chief.

Quoting General James Mattis, now the US defence secretary, with whom he used to work with, Gen Allen, said that "great powers don't get angry. They get strategic."

But even as some saw this as a deft move to embarrass Mr Obama, and demonstrate strength to Mr Jinping, it is entirely possible that this was an emotional response. 

U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a a joint press conference with Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), not pictured, inside the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Stoltenberg commented on U.S.-Russia relations during a meeting with Trump and stated that NATO does not want a new Cold War.  Credit: Olivier Douliery/ Bloomberg

Mr Trump changed his mind just as images of children dying from Sarin poisoning were being plastered on television screens.  

"Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,’ the President said. "No child of God should ever suffer such horror."

And sources in the National Security Council have told me this was not an action thought of within the scope of a wider plan.

Assad had probably thought he was on safe ground. Mr Zakarya said the regime had been "testing the waters" for the attack, by dropping chlorine gas bombs near Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. These are terrifying, dangerous, and illegals weapons, but not as deadly

The onslaughts seemed to go unnoticed. In fact, on 30 March the Trump administration inadvertently rewarded Assad with a promise not to come after him.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations said that the US needed to “pick and choose [its] battles”.

“Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out," she said.

That same day, Mr Tillerson said Assad's fate should be decided by the Syrian people. By this time, Assad had already declared Mr Trump a "natural ally". 

But five days later, after the regime had launched its sarin attack, Mr Tillerson and Mrs Haley were back with an entirely different message.

“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly. With the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” Mr Tillerson said, in the hours before the missile strike.

Asked if the US would lead an international coalition to remove Assad from power he responded: “Those steps are under way.”

But celebrations by the rebel opposition proved premature. 

Once the Tomahawk's had struck their targets and Mr Trump's anger quenched, the administration set about with yet another messaging campaign: So long as he stopped toying with chemical weapons, Assad could, for the moment at least, remain in power.

The strike had been in the name of America's national interests, Mr Trump said. It was designed to reinforce the taboo of using chemical weapons, and not to change the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. 

"Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term," Mr Tillerson said.

Assad cannot be part of a future Syria, the administration qualified, but for now, the focus now for Washington is defeating Isil.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now called the Islamic State group, marching in Raqqa, Syria.  Credit: Militant Website via AP,/Militant Website via AP,

Or is it? 

Even as he was trying to deliver this message, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary opened the possibility that the US may attack the Assad regime should they use barrel bombs. 

“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” he said.

These crude, home-made oil drums filled with TNT have become a primary weapon in the government's arsenal. They have flattened entire apartment buildings, leaving countless civilians crushed in in the rubble. 

Attacking the regime for their use would inevitably draw America deeper into the Syrian war. 

Mr Spicer later qualified that he meant barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas or other chemical weapons. 

But even that would be a significant step towards military intervention. A senior White House official said they had received over 200 reports of chemical weapons use by Damascus, an that many of them were "credible". 

Mr Mattis also left the door open for retaliatory attacks for the use of chlorine gas.

And muddying the waters further, General H R McMaster, Mr Trump's national security adviser suggested that defeating Isil may not be an absolute prerequisite to removing Assad.

“There has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of Isis first," he said. 

Mr Trump's supporters have watched this message yo-yoing warily. In the aftermath to the Syria strike angry comments flew on social media, with many saying they had been "double crossed". 

They elected a populist president to address their concerns about jobs and immigration, not a hawk who, to quote John Quincy Adams, would go in "search of monsters to destroy" abroad.

The President has surrounded himself with generals, So perhaps its no surprise that this White House's reflex response in a crisis is military action. 

Whether America will once again become the world's policeman - very thing that Trump campaigned against - remains to be seen.