On Wednesday, when Donald Trump said that Syrian President Bashar al Assad had crossed "many, many lines, beyond red lines" by allegedly attacking his own people with deadly gas, Trump was making a callback to Barack Obama's old "red line." That was Obama's 2012 warning that the US would intervene in Syria if chemical weapons were used—but famously, when chemical weapons appeared on the scene he didn't attack, instead reaching an agreement with Russia and Assad in an attempt to ensure Syria's chemical weapons were destroyed. (Obviously, that deal didn't work out.) Trump isn't Obama: He didn't issue any warnings, no lines were drawn, he just launched missiles.
The question is, what's next? Russia has already said it will no longer coordinate with the US when it comes to airspace and has promised to boost anti-air defenses at Syrian bases. Will that tension be eased by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's upcoming visit to Moscow? Can we expect more military action from Trump?To game out the possibilities, I called up Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute. Here's what we talked about:
VICE: What does this strike mean for relations between the US and Russia?
Randa Slim: I think we need to observe the next meeting that's going to take place in Moscow between Tillerson and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I think that's going to be critical. It's interesting that Moscow has not canceled this meeting because of the strike. They could have, and decided not to. So basically that shows that one, the strike had been coordinated with the Russians, two, the Russians were not happy with Assad because of what he did. And so they were not that unhappy with the American response, primarily because Assad has proven to be a difficult ally to the Russians. Ungrateful, but at the same time uncontrollable. And then three, they want to leave the door open for negotiations with the Americans. You can expect them to take a stand at the United Nations Security Council meeting. They are going to say the tough words, but I think the fact that the trip is still onboard and they have not canceled is a strong signal that Moscow wants to talk.
Is there any truth to what's coming out of Russia about how this will help terrorist groups like ISIS?
Oh, no. So far, it was a very limited strike, it has affected one airfield, it has not grounded the Syrian air force as many people, including myself, have been calling for. It has not denied Assad the ability to use his air force in the future. The message for the administration has been mostly about the use of the chemical weapons, more than anything else, although he has plenty of other weapons to use. I mean, the same type of attack happens using barrel bombs everywhere else, and yet we did not see that kind of outrage. Granted, it's a different administration. Still Assad is on a winning streak, still the opposition is weak, and still ISIS is losing because of the American strikes. I don't see [the strike] changing that equation.
What about Assad? Could this limited strike embolden him to finish off the rebels? Or could the idea of American intervention cause him to escalate his attacks in anticipation of more?
He can escalate his attacks using non-chemical weapons means, and he will, I think. And then that will put us in a bind. What are we going to do? What if he goes and commits another one of those barrel bomb attacks on neighborhoods in Idlib? Part of the argument is going to be, Well, the main opposition force in Idlib is an al Qaida affiliate, blah blah blah. So that's going to be putting us in a bind. There is an emerging consensus that Idlib needs to be spared, primarily because it holds now 10 percent of the Syrian population, and it's all opposition-controlled community. An escalation in Idlib is going to face us with another tough choice.
What is Trump doing that Obama wouldn't have done?
Nothing much. So far it's the same—the only difference is the willingness to use force in reaction to a chemical weapons attack. The policy of not pursuing regime change is still the same. We are not forcing change and we are not encouraging change. That was the case with Obama, that is the case now. The policy of having the conflict negotiated through political means was the same with Obama, it is the same now. So I don't see much change, except as I said, when it comes to the CW use, they have basically decided to honor the red line that Obama established. So it's an Obama red line, and yet Trump is enforcing it.
Doesn't the air strike at least send a message to other countries that Trump will use unilateral force more quickly than Obama?
Yes, yes. Definitely. I mean it's interesting that this happened yesterday while the Chinese president, is having dinner [with Trump]. And I wonder, did Trump tell him about that attack? While they were serving salad, or while they were having drinks? The Chinese did not say that they were told ahead of time, but I'm assuming that they were told ahead of time.
It will definitely send a message to the international community: One, Trump is unpredictable, two, he's impulsive. Two days ago our policy was the Syrian people have to decide Assad's fate, now we are sending missiles because he used CW against his people. And we are saying he no longer has a role in the future of Syria. So in a matter of the course of eight hours he changed policies. So this unpredictability can be leveraged, in fact, in dealing, enforcing, or in pushing North Korea and Assad, to change their calculous. I think that's something that is not to be discounted. But at the same time, it can also force countries like Iran to resolve to consider measures to retaliate against us. They might not be able to fight us in the field, but they might launch terrorist acts against us.
Do you have any idea why this chemical attack changed Trump's policy so quickly?
It's his character, it's impulsiveness. But also—I'm being cynical here—this is happening in a context of a political climate in this country where he was losing the narrative, so behaving like a president, saving children that are being gassed, might also serve his political prospects at home. So we cannot discount that. But also, this is us getting to know Trump. I don't think we know Trump enough. And I don't think that the international community knows Trump. So he is on a learning curve, we are on a learning curve about him.
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