Earlier this week, someone attacked Syrian citizens with chemical weapons, resulting in the deaths of at least 85 civilians – including women and young children. Illegal chemical weapons were certainly used, but the culprit is less clear. Western media would blame Assad, while the Kremlin continues to back his regime. Now, this act is reprehensible, but a consequence of the on-going civil war in Syria – one not helped by the two dominant interfering parties – Russia, and the United States of America. Who committed the attack needs investigation, it is too early to blame anyone. But, the response of the Trump administration can be questioned and condemned.
Trump’s response was to order a missile attack. 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from the USS Ross and USS Porter. The attack targeted the al-Shayrat airbase close to Homs. Unconfirmed reports say the base was destroyed, though potentially evacuated before the strike. The attack is problematic. No chemical weapons were released against US soldiers. The US had no grounds to launch a military offensive against the Syrian government – their involvement in the Middle East is to fight terrorist organizations, and whatever anyone may think of Assad, he is, for now, a legitimate leader of a sovereign nation.
Trump has explicitly stated that the attack was a direct response to the chemical weapons attack: “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.” His act lacked congressional and international authorization. But Trump later, informed undoubtedly by advisors appealed to the notion of national security. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” The argument is dangerous. If accepted it sets precedent where the United States can interfere in other nations because they fear a potential threat. As any student of history knows the bombing of another nation without due cause does not end well. Compellence and deterrence do not work.
This act has potentially disastrous consequences for not only Syria but the international order. The United States is not officially at war with Syria, and yet just launched a military attack – interfering in Syrian sovereignty, without due cause or warning. Russia, Syria’s staunch ally has already begun to issue worrying statements in response, with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov making an angry statement. Peskov said Putin sees the strikes on Syria as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law, and under a false pretext”. Actions of this kind lead to war. Attacks will not end until one side is annihilated. The actions have upset delicate international arrangements, and the consequences are likely to be far-reaching. There is no denying that the chemical attack was reprehensible and in violation of international law. But this response is not going to help matters.