04/07/2017 02:54 EDT | Updated 04/08/2017 10:01 EDT

Donald Trump Once Said Striking Syria Was A Terrible Idea. What Changed?

It's not even clear if Trump wants regime change in Syria.

NEW YORK – Somebody once said attacking Syria could start the Third World War. That it was a terrible idea, that strikes required congressional approval, and that there might be dark political purposes for the president attempting such folly: boosting poor poll numbers.

Who said all these things? Donald Trump, of course.

But that was back when he was a Barack Obama-loathing Twitter pundit and not the commander-in-chief. After all the barrel bombs and gas attacks since those tweets of 2012 and 2013, something has apparently changed.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Syria from the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2017. (Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images)

Trump said he was stirred to act by the sight of children killed in sarin-gas attacks. His decision to strike a Syrian airfield has received broad backing in Washington, though Democrats want a discussion in Congress, it has dismayed some early Trump supporters and the Russians are apparently livid.

But Trump's team says it was a cautious, targeted move. They say the Russians were given a heads-up, allowing them to clear out the targeted airfield before it was pulverized by American cruise missiles.

"This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for," Rex Tillerson said. He delivered a subliminal contrast with Trump's predecessor, who set a red line then wavered on it.

"President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line."

Trump said he was stirred to act by the sight of Syrian children killed in sarin-gas attacks. (Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images)

But he added a significant word of caution, which leaves open the question of just what long-term objective Trump was trying to achieve in blowing up a single airfield, among the many belonging to the Syrian military: Tillerson said this targeted strike does not signal a change in military posture on Syria.

It's not even clear if Trump wants regime change – the most basic question of all.

The director of George Washington University's Project on Middle East Political Science penned an opinion piece that looked ahead at four such questions that will be raised in the fallout of these strikes.

One: Will it affect the Syrian civil war? No, Marc Lynch wrote in the Washington Post. He called the strike on a single airbase one of the smallest military moves Trump could possibly have made.

"On its own, it is a symbolic action which has virtually no impact on the course of the long, complex Syrian civil war," he wrote.

His second question: Can Trump avoid mission creep? Lynch said people pushing for Assad's ouster will now be emboldened, and this could turn into the slippery slope Obama feared.

His third question is whether Trump is now really a mainstream Republican, on military questions. It appears so, Lynch said. That's infuriated some Trump supporters. His talk-radio booster Laura Ingraham tweeted Friday: "The same officials and think-tank generals who helped destabilize the Mideast (with) misguided foreign policy itching to get back in power."

Fourth, Lynch asks: Can he contain the fallout?

Syria has proven to be a historically explosive tinderbox, and the Americans have just pounded it with rockets. Lynch's concerns include escalating tit-for-tat with Russia, advances by the so-called Islamic State, and reprisals against U.S. troops in the region.

The Russia question

Already the six-year civil war has metastasized, spewing its malignant effects onto distant continents from its original dark spot in the land bordering NATO Turkey on one side; Israel on the other; and war-prone Lebanon, now filled with refugees.

Then there's the Russia question. The Assad regime – detested by vast swaths of Syrian society, hailing from a minority Alawite sect, resented by the region's Sunnis – has always had a friend in Moscow.

It started in the 1950s after Bashar Assad's father emerged from a tiny mountain village to become the first member of his family to obtain a post-secondary education. He joined socialist causes in college, joined the air force and went to the Soviet Union for an extended training session on flying MiG aircraft.

That early connection led to innumerable ties with Russia – commercial relationships, cultural exchanges, even intermarried families.

"President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line."

Russia's determination to protect its investment in Assad has been underscored by its repeated interventions in recent years – brokering deals, buying time, keeping the family in power as it clawed its way back from the brink of military defeat.

The base targeted early Friday, the one the Pentagon says stored deadly sarin gas used by Assad, reportedly had a Russian contingent on it. Now the U.S. says it's investigating whether Russians were complicit in the chemical attacks.

This with a new quasi-Cold War already underway.

The Americans says they gave the Russians a head-up before cruise missiles started raining in, to let them clear out. But on Friday, the Russians professed to being livid.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the strike brought the two great powers "within an inch" of combat.

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