The graphic images of the youngest victims of the recent sarin attack on Khan Sheikoun, Syria, apparently prompted President Donald Trump to have a change of heart about the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me—big impact,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” In a statement last night, after he gave orders to strike the Syrian air base from which the chemical weapon attack originated, Trump said, “Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Yet the Trump who fired 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria out of professed humanitarian concerns is the same one who not so long ago insisted he could look Syrian children “in the face and say, ‘You can’t come here.'” A week into his presidency, he signed an executive order that would indefinitely ban Syrians, even beautiful babies, from seeking refuge in the United States.
The irony of Trump’s sudden flare-up of compassion is not lost on the human rights advocates who have been pushing back against Trump’s attempt to shut out Syrians. “This would be a great opportunity for the president to reconsider his previous statements and to think about the fact that these refugees are fleeing precisely the type of violence we are seeing this week in Syria,” says Jennifer Sime, a senior vice president of the International Rescue Committee‘s United States programs. Trump’s newfound humanitarian concerns, Sime says, provides an opportunity “to reconsider the travel ban, to reconsider the cap on the total number of refugees who can enter this country, to reconsider the suspension on refugee resettlement in the United States, and to make our country again a welcoming country for refugees.”
A statement from the International Refugee Assistance Project following the missile strikes took a similar tone. “Rather than pay lip service to the plight of innocent Syrian children, President Trump should provide actual solutions for the children who have been languishing in refugee camps for years,” it reads. “Many refugee children have been left in life or death situations following the President’s executive order, which suspends and severely curtails the U.S. resettlement program.”
Trump has repeatedly called for the “extreme vetting” of refugees and has suggested that some, including a Syrian family with young children, might be ISIS sleepers. Kirk W. Johnson, a former United States Agency for International Development worker who has led an effort to resettle Iraqis in the United States, told Mother Jones in January that Trump’s refugee ban “reads as though 9/11 happened yesterday, and that 9/11 was carried out by refugees, which it wasn’t, and it creates a series of policy prescriptions to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, as if the stringent measures that have been put in place over the past 15 years to screen refugees don’t exist.”
After the 2013 attack in eastern Ghouta, in which the Syrian government killed more than 1,000 people with chemical weapons, Trump penned dozens of tweets imploring President Barack Obama to do nothing. “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside,” read one. “Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” Despite the fact that the Assad government has been responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties in the Syrian civil war, Trump previously excused its brutality by arguing that while it was bad, it was also “killing ISIS.”
If Trump’s strike on Syria was intended to curtail Assad’s ability to launch more attacks on civilians, it does not seem to have worked. An American official told ABC News that 20 Syrian aircraft were destroyed in Thursday’s strike on the Shaayrat airbase, but the runway was left untouched. Syrian warplanes have already resumed using the base to launch air strikes on rebel-held areas.
More than six years since the conflict in Syria began, nearly a half million people are dead, 6.3 million are displaced inside the country, and 4.8 million refugees have sought safety in neighboring countries. “These people didn’t flee because they wanted a change in scenery,” says Sime. “They fled because of the extreme violence, and the United States, along with other countries in the international community, should open their doors to provide refuge to these people who have been through these terrible circumstances.”