ROME — It’s hard to say just which of the photos of the dead babies affected President Donald Trump the most.
Whether it was the one of Abdul-Hamid Alyousef clutching his nine-month-old dead twins as rigor mortis set in, or the one of a pile of dying children, their noses and mouths still foaming from a suspected sarin gas attack in Idlib province doesn’t really matter.
“It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” Trump said as he announced the attack on a Syrian airbase, retaliating for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
But, here’s the thing: More than 55,000 children have died in the six-year civil war, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. They died in air raids, car bombs, and chemical attacks. Yet until this week, the rhetoric and policy of this administration was moving toward at least tacit cooperation with Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers in Syria.
And now Trump appears to be reacting to grim, glossy pictures, not the very messy problems behind them.
Days before the chemical attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointedly nodded in the Syrian dictator’s direction. The “longer-term status of President Assad,” Tillerson said, “will be decided by the Syrian people,” a euphemism used by Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to indicate that he isn’t going anywhere.
And then there is the matter of children who’ve fled the carnage. Some 600 or more died last year alone trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to safety, according to Save the Children. On average, two children die each day trying to find safety. Those who survive are part of a lost generation who will never know safety, forever robbed of a happy childhood.
Dead children have captured the world’s attention before. When 4-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015, the world seemingly stopped to consider just what was happening.
A short time later, the image, which was called fake by Assad, was forgotten.
A year later, Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old bleeding boy in the ambulance captured hearts again, but not enough to make anyone change tactics or strategies in making the war stop.
This time, though, the dead babies appear to have made a difference. “I now have responsibility,” Trump said during his news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II ahead of the early Friday strikes. “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal… that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
So when Trump announced the strikes on the Syrian airfield where those chemical weapons reportedly were launched, he referred to those babies again. “On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical-weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children,” Trump said from his Mar-a-Lago Resort in Florida. And among those children, the “beautiful babies.”
“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in the vital national-security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Make no mistake, all of the babies did die in vain. Their senseless deaths can never be avenged, no retaliatory attack can ever bring them back. But, for the first time since the deadly civil war started, at least this time they seem to have made a difference to Donald Trump.
Whether he will change his policy attempting to ban all Syrian refugees, including children, from entering the United States—that remains an open question.