The Khan Sheikhun chemical attack has prompted President Donald Trump to declare positions that have eclipsed the contradiction and confusion in statements by the pillars of his administration regarding Syria and the fate of its president, Bashar al-Assad. True, Trump did not clarify what he had in mind when he said that the chemical attacks against Syrian civilians in Idlib on Tuesday had crossed “many lines”, in reference to red lines. “I will tell you, what happened yesterday is unacceptable to me,” Trump told reporters at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday. ” I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he added, without elaborating. However, his envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said, “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.” Haley blamed Russia for the Syrian regime’s continued use of chemical weapons. Haley was the first US official to describe Assad as a war criminal, stressing the need for accountability and punishment. She also downplayed statements by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who suggested Assad’s removal was not a US priority and that his fate should be decided by his people. Haley, who stood in the UN Security Council hall carrying the pictures of the victims next to the president’s chair, has hinted that there is something new to be expected in Trump’s policy on Syria. Donald Trump has clearly put Bashar al-Assad on notice. In the event he is proven to have used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun, he would have crossed more than just a redline in the eyes of the new US president, who had criticized Obama for backtracking from his own redline in Syria to the detriment of US prestige. All this does not necessarily mean that a decision to intervene militarily to bring Assad down has entered into force, nor does it mean that Trump has a clear coherent policy on Syria. For the Trump administration, the absolute priority remains the elimination of ISIS, which passes through a necessary decisive victory in Raqqa. The second priority now may be holding Assad accountable. The Syrian president claims he no longer has chemical weapons after the US-Russian agreement, which had effaced Obama’s redline. This is while bearing in mind that Obama had also backtracked from another equally important redline, when he legitimized Assad as president as part of the chemical weapons deal, in contrast with his previous position calling for Assad to step down for having lost his legitimacy. The declarations by the pillars of Trump’s administration recognizing Assad are the result of Obama’ ‘de facto’ policy and his backtracking from his redlines. The third priority, which appears diluted between the verbal escalation and actual measures, is Iran and her role in Syria, especially Iran’s project for a Persian crescent through Syria and Lebanon, engineered and reinforced by means of warfare and sectarian evacuations. The de facto partition of Syria is proceeding in full swing, and has become one of the bargaining chips in negotiations. If this week’s developments lead to a coherent US policy on Syria, many assumptions held prior to Trump’s sudden shift could change, including those related to putative accords with Russia and Iranian measures on the ground, as well as Russia and Iran’s insistence on Assad remaining in power, in conjunction with an American rejection of his role henceforth.

The US president appeared furious about what happened in Idlib. He said he would be sending a message to Iranian militias soon, describe the attack as a terrible insult to humanity. Trump did not reveal what actions he would take in response, but made it clear that US policy on Syria will change.

Many are asking: Is this a transient fit of emotion because Trump was moved by the sight of dead children and infants killed by chemical weapons? Or will Trump deliver on his promise of punishment and policy rethink?

Generally speaking, Trump has sought to deliver on promises where he could. In this case, he will not be alone and this is not just an election promise. Senior members of his administration are handling the military aspect of US objectives in Syria, from Raqqa to the fate of the territories liberated from ISIS control. This in addition to establishing military bases in Syria and securing control of several airbases, led by the Tabaqa Airbase, which is as important as the airbase in Ain al-Arab (Kobani) and Abu Hajar near Rumeilan and Qamishli.

Undermining Iran’s plans in Syria is an important part of the strategy being developed by the Trump administration, at the level of the defense secretary and the national security advisor, in addition to other key stakeholders influencing US strategy. This, in their view, requires winning battles on the ground, with the elimination of ISIS strongholds, securing bases, and controlling resource-rich areas of Syria. Only then will the Trump administration begin playing its cards with Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

With Russia, the Trump administration is aware now that there is no path to a bilateral deal based on cordial accords between Trump and Putin. The internal climate does not allow it, amid suspicions about their relationship and investigations into ties between Trump’s close associates and figures in Russia. Furthermore, Moscow’s strategic alliances with Syria and Iran are not something the Trump administration can coexist with or adapt to, particularly because rewarding Tehran will require Moscow to bless Iran’s project of a Persian crescent, vetoed by the US.

This is significant, because meeting Iranian demands in Syria requires de-facto partition for the sake of this crescent. While Russia is willing to hint that it accepts this – but as a matter of principle, this would undermine its influence in Syria and thus Moscow does not want it – the US is thinking how to preempt this. Washington under Trump wants to guarantee its interests in Syria, and is willing to accommodate Russia’s interests there, but not those of Iran.

Until recently, there were proposals to turn a blind eye to Assad in power instead of calling for his immediate departure as a condition, while isolating him and effectively invalidating his power. Today, Assad’s involvement in the chemical attack in Idlib was concluded and Washington will no longer accept his remaining in power. The Trump Administration has put Assad on trial, but there will be more. The American consent to the Russian-Iranian bid to keep Assad in power is no longer part of the equation.

The Trump administration may seek to convince Putin that the time has come to separate Russian interests in Syria from those of Iran. This would require two things: Disengaging Russian strategy from Iranian strategy in Syria, and consenting to removing Assad from power in one way or another. This could spare Syria from partition.

Sparing Syria from partition, which has been unfolding in the past two weeks, requires US-Russian accord at the highest levels, and meticulous strategic trade-offs. But neither Iran nor Turkey will agree to this. Both have played military roles in Syria to further their interests and projects that do not converge with Russian interests today, especially if the US and Russia agree to divide influence, resources, and reconstruction deals between them.

Turkey will not be able to blackmail its allies using the leverage of its Incirlik base, because the US will have alternatives in Syria after the battle for Raqqa. Turkey is angry because of US support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey had reached a deal with Russia, trading Aleppo for Russian consent of Turkish operations to “cleanse” Kurdish forces near Turkey’s borders, and became a ‘guarantor’ of the ceasefire in Syria alongside Russia and Iran. But it is unlikely to get more in Syria.

Iran, for its part, is increasingly anxious of the changes in US positions under Trump. For this reason, it is scrambling to impose itself through its militias on the ground, wagering that the US will not dare to fight a war that requires US boots on the ground, while having no alternative capable of fighting Iran and her militias. However, the Trump administration may have different designs – and aces up its sleeves.

One such surprise came in Trump’s remarks. Syria is “my responsibility,” said the new US president, who consistently blamed his predecessor for failing to implement his warnings and pledges, and for weakening America by leading from the back. Perhaps Trump was thinking of coexisting with Assad for a while. But Khan Sheikhun may have changed everything. The children and infants killed by chemical weapons may go down in history as the trigger of a US policy shift in Syria.

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