Donald Trump’s response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria which left dozens dead has so far been entirely typical: he has sent a series of angry tweets. But now that the president has finished typing will he go one further and press any red buttons? More than a day on since the bombing, the United States has held back on retaliating, leaving another western ally – believed to be Israel – to target the Syrian military airport from which it is thought the attack was launched. Trump has certainly piled pressure on himself to act, and there are several reasons to think military action will be imminent. Firstly, the president didn’t hold back on pinning the blame on ‘animal Assad’, even if, officially, the US is still waiting to see who was actually responsible. In his tweets, Trump also promised a ‘big price…’. For a man of his ego, this would make it more surprising than not if he backed down and didn’t act against the Syrian regime.
Trump also has form on putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to Syria. Nearly a year ago to the day, the US spent $100m or so on dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles which it launched against a Syrian airbase implicated in the deadly Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. Trump said back then that he ordered that response to ‘deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons’. Surely by that same logic he must now act again.
Trump’s initial phone call with Emmanuel Macron adds to the theory that a response will be forthcoming. But there is another, much more important motive for Trump to act – and to do so quickly: his utter desperation to avoid looking like Obama. In his Twitter Exocet, Trump pinned the blame on his predecessor, saying: ‘If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago!’. In responding to last April’s chemical attack, Trump has mapped out a similar red line for himself on the use of chemical weapons. So while it is famously difficult to predict in which direction the Trump presidency will veer next, there is one certainty: the current man in the White House is eager to avoid making what he sees as the mistakes made by predecessor. And it’s for that reason that it seems almost certain that, on this occasion, Trump’s response won’t just be confined to Twitter.