POLITICS
04/07/2017 12:42 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2017

Trump's Talk Of Syria Humanitarian Concern Rings Hollow

The president has demonized refugees, particularly Syrians, for years.

WASHINGTON ― As President Donald Trump on Thursday night announced a military strike on Syria because of his deep concern for “beautiful babies” and other civilians killed in a chemical weapons attack this week, two legal battles continued over his efforts to keep Syrian children and their families out of the United States.

The president’s first ban on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries is being litigated in a federal court in Seattle. His second attempted Muslim ban remains blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii, with an appeals court scheduled to hear the case in May.

Both executive orders halted the entry of refugees, and targeted Syrians in particular. The language of the orders echoed Trump’s campaign talk about the humanitarian crisis facing more than 20 million people from that country. In September, the then-candidate said denying U.S. entry to Syrian refugees is “a matter of terrorism” and “a matter of quality of life.”

Since his inauguration, Trump has repeatedly spread lies about refugee-related problems in Sweden. And his administration has tried to mislead the public on the number of refugees being investigated on terror charges. The Washington Post rated Trump’s talking point on the issue “highly misleading” last month.

After a U.S. intelligence analysis suggested that Syrian President Bashar Assad used the banned chemical weapon sarin in an attack on an opposition-held village on Tuesday, Trump spoke multiple times about children and other civilians who were affected. 

“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 at this very barbaric attack,” Trump said after launching the strike Thursday night. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

The White House confirmed after the attack that Trump has not altered his position on refugees. National Security Adviser James McMaster said the refugee issue “wasn’t discussed as any part of the deliberations” for the strikes, according to a White House pool report.

The hypocrisy did not go unnoticed.

Trump has already “shown callous disregard for Syrians attempting to flee for their lives,” said Margaret Huang, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, in a statement Friday morning. She called for the administration to immediately revoke its bans on refugee entry.

“America must do more to welcome and protect the innocent Syrian men, women and children who are escaping the brutality that President Trump responded to last night,” Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of the Jewish refugee resettlement organization HIAS, said Friday afternoon in a statement. “An equally forceful humanitarian response is urgently needed, and the United States has the opportunity to lead by example ... we hope yesterday’s action is a signal that the Trump administration will change course when it comes to assisting this vulnerable population.”

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, urged Trump to present a long-term strategy.

More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, when Assad attacked peaceful protests against his family’s decades-long rule.

“In many cases, children caught up in this crisis have fared the worst, losing family members or friends to the violence, suffering physical and psychological trauma, or falling behind in school,” the nonprofit World Vision wrote in a post on March 15, the sixth anniversary of the civil war. “Children affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited.”

Trump’s strike in itself is unlikely to have any serious impact on civilian suffering. A one-off U.S. show of force may help the president and his team feel they’re taken action. But the Assad regime’s assault on Syria’s people will likely continue, perhaps after some small break.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested this would be the case Thursday night, telling reporters not to expect a change in U.S. policy toward directly trying to force Assad out.

“If Trump just wants Assad to stop using [chemical weapons] but does nothing about sieges, torture & mass executions, then Assad will likely say ‘deal,’” Kristyan Benedict, campaigns manager for Amnesty International UK, tweeted. “Stopping Assad’s chemical attacks has value for sure but [chemical weapons] are just one tool the regime use to terrorize civilians & maintain their power.”

Rowaida Abdelaziz contributed reporting.

This article has been updated with comment from Huang and Hetfield.

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