Troubling Times: Trump and Syria

Opinions  /  by Anton Kandalin '19, Ethan Johnson '19, and David Zhu '19  /  April 14, 2017

Katie Davis '18 / The Lawrence

Anton Kandalin '19 and Ethan Johnson '19

On April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. One hundred years later, the United States launched an attack that could very well lead to World War III.

Less than 72 hours after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun on April 4, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the launching of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat Air Base which, according to the U.S. intelligence community, housed the warplanes used to launch Assad’s chemical attack. During the entire duration of Syria’s civil war, this strike was the first intentional military action carried out directly against the Syrian Arab Republic, and it therefore symbolizes an extraordinary escalation in the U.S.’s presence in Syria and can even be considered an act of war.

The very reason that Trump attacked was unfounded. Without a thorough investigation, Trump’s administration unhesitantly blamed Assad for the chemical weapons attack. In reality, nobody knows for sure who was responsible. In 2014, the United Nations Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported that “the total of declared chemical weapons materials destroyed or removed from Syria [had] reached 100 percent,” also confirming the “functional destruction [...] of [Syria’s] declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants.” Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector, stated, “Chemical attacks had been occurring inside Syria on a regular basis . . . with some being attributed to the Syrian government, and the majority being attributed to the anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.” Since the Syrian government apparently did not have (or at least, should not have had) chemical weapons, why did we so assuredly pin Assad as the culprit for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack?

All Americans, regardless of their political affiliations, must acknowledge that Trump’s airstrike blatantly violated the U.S. Constitution. Before ordering his Tomahawk strike, Trump did not seek approval from Congress, even though the Constitution clearly states that the power to “declare war” is reserved for Congress and not the Executive Branch. In addition, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires the commander-in-chief to consult Congress before sending American troops into an armed conflict. Undoubtedly, initiating a unilateral act of war against a nation not already engaged in hostilities with the US is not within the president’s legitimate constitutional authority.

Furthermore, by attacking the Al Shayrat Airbase, America disregarded Syria’s national sovereignty and breached international law. The United Nations Charter prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” except in the case of self-defense or with the approval of the Security Council. Since the use of chemical weapons in Syria was not a direct threat to the United States, and because Trump did not gain approval from the Security Council, Assad could rightly argue that the United States initiated an illegal attack on Syria. Trump’s apologists claim his action was “unlawful but legitimate”: an oxymoron that we must not tolerate.

As a result of America’s intervention, conflict in Syria has escalated and tensions between the United States and Russia have reached a new high. The fact that Syria is a major ally of Russia means that, in all likelihood, Trump’s strike on Syria has undermined any conceivable partnership between the U.S. and Russia in creating a sustainable unity government in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the cruise missile strike as a “significant blow” to U.S.-Russia relations, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev claimed that Trump had “completely ruined” relations. Last week, Russia also pledged that it would “respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines,” adding, as a side note, “America knows our ability to respond well.”

All aspects considered, last Thursday’s military strike on Syria’s Shayrat Airbase was both morally reprehensible and erroneous. By swiftly responding to violence with violence, Trump sent a clear message: Even without sufficient evidence, his administration is willing to violate the constitution and conventional international law in order to generate military conflict. If the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was enough to incite World War I, is it such a stretch to say that America’s attack on Syria could spiral into World War III?

David Zhu '19

On April 6, Trump ordered the launch of 59 tomahawk missiles from two navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea targeting a Syrian military base in retaliation against president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Although the U.S. has led strikes in Syria years before Trump’s order last week, most targeted ISIS, not the Syrian government. Trump’s first major military action in office was the U.S.A’s first direct attack against Assad. His harshest critics in American media praised Trump. Fareed Zakaria, an analyst from CNN, declared that “Donald Trump became president of the United States.” As Trump basks in the light of his decision to finally take action against Assad, the praise makes it easy to ignore the consequences of his actions. Yet even if moral obligations and old threats are what drive Trump’s military actions, launching missiles on a whim destabilizes U.S. relations with Russia, does little to deter Assad’s regime, and raises questions on the reliability of Trump’s foreign policy.

Prior to the airstrike, Assad had already been warned that further use of chemical weapons would warrant military retaliation from the U.S. According to the UN, the use of chemical weapons violates the Chemical Weapons Convention, making Assad’s actions war crimes under international law. In 2012, Obama declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons crossed a “red line” and warranted U.S. military action. But Obama failed to intervene when Assad conducted another chemical attack on Ghouta, Syria, in August 2013, killing 1,400 civilians with sarin gas, a banned chemical agent. Obama held back from taking action against Assad, only proposing small airstrikes that were denied by Congress. In the same year, Russia brokered a deal with the U.S. to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons in exchange for amnesty for Assad’s war crimes. However, Assad’s attack last week shows that Moscow failed to follow through with its own side of the deal, as Syria blatantly crossed the “red line” Obama drew four years ago. Therefore, both Russia and the U.S. must be held responsible for the death of 70 people in Khan Sheikhoun and Ghouta.

Trump’s reasons for carrying out the strike challenge the legitimacy of his ever-changing foreign policy. After the missile strike, Trump said, “Beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in [Assad’s] very barbaric attack,” which suggested that his order was motivated by moral rather than practical reasons. Despite Assad’s many war crimes during the Syrian Civil War, another chemical attack only makes a small addition to the growing civilian death toll as it rises past 500,000. Yet if Trump stakes his actions on moral obligations, he goes against many of his own political standpoints. Trump, the same man who declared that he could look Syrian refugees—even babies—in the eye and deny them entry into the U.S., only needs to see photos of suffering civilians to launch missiles against Assad without talking the decision over first. If Assad’s moral conduct is the main issue at hand, then why was the chemical attack carried out last week suddenly more significant than his constant attacks on civilians in the last decade? Since Trump is willing to completely reverse his stance on taking military action against Assad’s regime, how and what else will he change in the coming years as president?