Mere days after Thursday’s Tomahawk missile strike against Syria’s Shayrat airfield, the true cost lies somewhere ahead in the fog of the future. The 59 missiles that struck ammunition, fuel, aircraft, air defenses and radar were described as a response to the chemical attack against the town of Khan Sheikhoun by Bashar al-Assad’s air force. It marks a first for the Trump administration—an attack on a sovereign nation.
Assad has been waging war against his own subjects since 2011. The history is long and complex, but it began with his attack on Arab Spring protestors. When the protestors fought back and military elements revolted, Syria devolved into a civil war. Fundamentalist jihadis mixed in with resistance forces, factionalizing the rebels between moderates and extremists. Kurds, seeking an autonomous northern region for themselves, took up arms separately.
Assad was ruthless, targeting civilians without remorse. But on the morning of August 21, 2013, he used chemical weapons to attack Ghouta, a Damascus neighborhood controlled by resistance forces. Death toll estimates range from 281 to 1,789. It crossed a red line set forth by then President Barack Obama, who warned of the possibility of a strong American response. But Obama, fearing the same criticism he received for his intervention against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, sought Congressional authorization. He was ignored.
With American forces already fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, Obama turned to diplomacy and, with the Russians, negotiated for Assad to turn over and dispose of all of his chemical weapons. The violence, however, did not abate. As of 2017, more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed by conventional weapons. Assad has been bolstered in that time, too, with Iran contributing significant funds and personnel to aid in the war against the dictator’s enemies. The Russian response was overt, with Putin deploying warplanes and ground forces to secure portions of the country against any dissent. Even though some have withdrawn, Russian forces and their equipment are prevalent in Syria to this day.
Which brings us to the gas attack last week against Khan Sheikhoun. With it, it became obvious that Assad still held onto some chemical weapons. Though Russia alleged that conventional weapons had destroyed a rebel stockpile of Sarin gas, it sparked outrage and condemnation nearly everywhere else. According to Trump and his aides, he was overcome by the disturbing images of dying children who had been poisoned by the gas.
By all accounts and analysis, the attack on Shayrat by American destroyers in the Mediterranean using Tomahawks was carefully planned and executed. It appears every effort was made to confine the damage to Assad’s assets at Shayrat. Iran and Russia are furious, however, with the latter deploying more assets to the region as a show of force and support for Assad. Those countries, along with China, have condemned the unilateral action by the U.S. American allies, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the Gulf States, Jordan, Japan and Israel, have voiced support for what they see as a proportional, warranted response.
Americans, as with many other things in 2017, are heavily divided over the action. Some liberals and conservatives are in agreement that Assad needed to pay for once again gassing his own people. Some view it as action that is better late than never. For others, its was warranted because a deal is a deal, and Assad broke his part of it. Many Americans, however, are furious at the administration and their government, and rightfully so. It is rife with hypocrisy and danger.
Trump’s electoral base has been vocally upset with him for changing course, after running a campaign which promised “America First” in all geopolitical considerations. For many, that means no longer fighting wars in a dysfunctional Middle East at a tremendous cost of blood and treasure. A cruise missile strike against Syria was a step in that all-too-familiar direction. Support for Vladimir Putin had risen among Trump supporters as well, and bombarding a Russian ally so shortly after cranking up the rhetoric praising a Russia-U.S. alliance in the war against the Islamic State was a disservice to a popular narrative used to deflect from the fact that Putin’s agents sought to undermine and influence the 2016 presidential election.
It was also hypocritical given the hawkish portrait painted of Clinton painted by Trump and his supporters. While Clinton had articulated a tougher stance than Obama or Trump on Assad’s regime, it focused on eliminating or grounding Assad’s air force. Trump’s cruise missile attack, though smaller in scale, also targeted the air force. Clinton critics had warned that she would instigate World War III, yet many of those critics see no danger in Trump unilaterally deciding to bomb Syria, Russia’s ally, without a firmly established international coalition.
That hypocrisy extends to Congress, as well. When Obama struck Gaddafi’s forces in Libya to prevent a massacre, Republicans very publicly rebuked him for abusing his powers and ignoring the Constitution. When he sought their approval to intervene in Syria after the first chemical attack by Assad, they refused to even debate the matter before proceeding to craft a new narrative of Obama’s weakness on the global stage. Trump did not seek Congressional approval to target Shayrat or the regime, and Republican congressional leaders insisted no such authorization from Congress was necessary.
It’s also hard to buy that Trump or Republicans care about the plight of Syrians given that hundreds of thousands have died since Assad started preserving his rule through violence. Though chemical weapons mark a significant violation of international law, war crimes have been going on for years inside of Syria. Mass torture, indiscriminate bombing of aid convoys and medical facilities, barrel bombing civilians, and using hunger as a coercive weapon all violate the laws of warfare as accepted by most of the world.
Even more farcical is Trump’s willingness to take action because of disturbing images of sick and dying children. The use of chemical weapons is certainly horrifying, but so is seeing a young Syrian boy wash ashore in southern Europe after falling off of one of the many capsized refugee boats. Millions of people have been displaced. They need food, shelter, education, and protection if they are to survive. For every day that young men among the refugees lose hope for a safe future, they become increasingly desperate and ripe for radicalization. Bombing Syria while increasing the likelihood that people have nowhere to go to escape the violence is a recipe for further exacerbating anti-American sentiment, creating new enemies for America for generations to come.
Which leads to the element of Thursday’s cruise missile attack that is dangerous. Assad surely is a war criminal and must be brought to justice, but not at the expense of thoughtful policy and planning. Congress deserves a say in authorizing any military commitment of the U.S. in Syria as laid out in the Constitution. Debating the issue ensures that it might be vetted and guided by the will of the American people, rather than the impulsive and reactionary nature of the Trump administration. The public needs to understand the implications for the budget, the economy, and their loved ones in uniform if America is to be militarily engaged in Syria for any period of time.
Syria is also the most likely flashpoint for any wider conflict between Russia and the U.S. With fighters, warships, and special forces for both sides very active in and above Syria, it’s not inconceivable that a tragic misunderstanding at high altitude or beyond visual range could touch off escalating reactions between the two largest nuclear powers. Were the exchange to become nuclear, millions would die and the world would be irreparably altered.
The attack on Shayrat also comes as American rhetoric and pressure on North Korea continues to grow. Kim Jong-un sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons, as well as some nuclear armaments of his own. The U.S. was unable to decisively resolve two simultaneous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq against guerrilla forces, so the notion that it could effectively fight a war on the Korean peninsula and in Syria while continuing operations agains the Islamic State is delusional at best.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the blank check of faith written by the American public and the media. How could anybody believe that Trump, a man who rose to power riding a wave of racism and dishonesty, whose financial interests have yet to be cut off from the power of the presidency, and whose primary loyalty thus far has been only to himself, would conduct war in the best interest of America and its closest allies? Could he be trusted to craft an ensuing peace that would be as lasting and just as possible? Would he expand the fighting if it appeared it might drive up American approval for what has been to this point one of the most unpopular presidential administration’s ever?
What would become of America were it drawn into a war in its current state? People are divided on nearly every major political issue, and allegations of collusion with Russian intelligence abound. Former and current administration officials have been tied to deeper than disclosed contacts with the Kremlin. Does such a president have any business asking Americans to pay the price in money and lives that comes with fighting a war he wants for incoherent reasons, and when significant doubts regarding his legitimacy or suitability for the office exist? For many Americans, the answer to that question represents the real danger of further escalation by Trump in Syria.