What Is Bashar al-Assad Thinking?

Mr. Trump has criticized conflict with the Assad government as a distraction from the war against the Islamic State and promoted reconciliation with Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally. Just days before the chemical weapons attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Mr. Assad’s fate would be “decided by the Syrian people.”

.. The Syrian people — half of whom are displaced, the other living in a police state or in ruins — are in no position to choose anything. The implication was clear to Mr. Assad: No matter what I do, the Americans will allow me to remain in power.

Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, reinforced this impression when she told reporters, “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

.. To Damascus, this looked like a green light to show Syrian civilians and rebels that there were no limits to what the regime would do to win, that the government could kill by whatever means to get the job done most quickly.

.. Mr. Tillerson quickly made clear that the cruise missile strikes do not signal a change in American policy — so far there is no immediate plan to force Mr. Assad’s ouster, to protect the opposition or to establish safe zones in Syria.

.. If Mr. Assad is smart, he will do it without chemical weapons — siege, starvation and barrel bombs will remain his tools of choice.