I had the same reaction as everyone near me when the notification popped up on my phone last Friday night— "President Trump approves missile strike on Syrian chemical facilities following Douma chemical attack,” one headline read—my reaction was a mix of confusion, anger, and outrage. I immediately jumped on social media and saw my own sentiment reflected back at me. Post after post from politicians, colleagues, and friends appeared on my feed, condemning the military operation as an unconstitutional act of war. And at the time, I agreed.
Several days later, I came across this article, about Syrian and Russian forces blocking and turning away inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This organization was, with the approval of the United States, looking to examine the site of a recent chemical attack in Douma that occurred several days prior. The idea of inspectors reminded me of the conflict between the U.S. and Iraq. That war, of course, seemed to flimsily center on the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, a rationale that almost universally outraged Americans when it turned out that no such weapons existed. A distinction between the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts became much more visible once this comparison was made, and I found my own outrage over Trump’s recent bombing of Syria to be somewhat unreasonable—the air strike that occurred over the weekend is much more nuanced than previously understood. Hear me out.
On April 14, fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles fired off from American, British and French forces at sea, targeting three locations within the region of Syria controlled by Dictator Bashar al-Assad. The targets were a scientific research center in Damascus that was believed to be connected to the development of chemical and biological weapons and two chemical weapons storage facilities near the city of Homs. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained these targets during a Pentagon press briefing. Meanwhile, Assad’s closest ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, hasn’t responded with force just yet. He has, however, suggested in classic Putin whataboutery that Western intervention in Syria will lead to “chaos” on the world stage.
The majority of Americans did not support this strike, including many Trump supporters. It’s somewhat characteristic of us as Americans to react to any sort of U.S. military intervention overseas with abhorrence, and understandably so. It’s not as if America has a successful track record when it comes to quelling conflict in the Middle East. The root of much of this sentiment can be traced to the sour legacy of former President George W. Bush’s absolutely disastrous campaign in Iraq—which could perhaps by regarded as one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in American history.
However, there’s something different—rather, a number of differences—in Trump’s approach to Syria that makes it a much different type of intervention than Bush’s in Iraq. The most important is the rationale. Bush’s 2003 rationale of the Iraqi invasion was patently false; his administration peddled suspicions and rumors of the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction by the Iraqi government—some of which originated from downright lies—even though preparation and planning of the invasion had begun in December of 2001, well before any inspectors were turned away by Iraqi authorities. Trump’s missile strike, on the other hand, comes after a slew of human rights violations conducted by pro-Assad forces on both Syrian citizens and rebels forces, which include numerous chemical attacks in the past.
Additionally, the recent strike on Syria was a “one-time shot,” according to the most respectable individual in the Trump administration, Defense Secretary James Mattis. It’s unlikely that more immediate military action will follow, but Mattis has also made it clear that if Assad chooses to conduct another chemical attack in the future, further strikes aren’t off the table. After all, Friday’s bombing happens to be the second time Trump has ordered an airstrike on Syrian chemical facilities following a chemical attack. Almost exactly a year ago in April of 2017, the Defense Department conducted a bombing of Shayrat Airbase in Homs in response to Assad’s use of sarin gas in a barrel bomb attack. This lethal attack also took place in Douma, which killed more than 80 people, including children. Trump’s plan of limiting intervention in Syria doesn’t seemed to be affected by this “one-off” missile strike—he’s expected to resume his exit strategy. This exit strategy doesn't appear to be the best move, seeing as how the U.S.’s premature withdrawal from the unstable Iraqi regime led to the formation of the Islamic State and various other insurgency movements.
Critiques of Trump actions mostly channel the aforementioned resentment of military intervention following Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. The rest of the critiques appeal to constitutional and legal authority—or more accurately, the nitpicking of the constitution with complete disregard for both the rest of the constitution and historical precedent on the subject of presidential power. For instance, the president isn’t required to notify Congress before proceeding with tactical operations; Obama conducted similar measures in Libya in 2011. Finally, there is some opposition to the strike explained by Trump’s conflicting views on Syrian intervention. (Zack Beauchamp from Vox pathetically tried using a meme to get his point across).
The key to understanding this airstrike is that it is not as direct a result of foreign conflict as one might suspect—this attack was in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Trump’s offensive on Syrian chemical weapons development and storage facilities is a tactical measure against the use of inhumane methods of violence, not the Syrian regime.
Therefore, we shouldn’t treat this airstrike like it will start some sort of war—there is already a war in Syria that sadly we’ve long forgotten about; talk today is too much about immigration of refugees rather than preventing them from becoming refugees in the first place. Rather, we should see the strike as an indicator that the United States will not tolerate atrocities like this, because we as a nation have a track record—good and bad—of intervening when the people caught in the crossfires of conflict suffer in ways that are unjust. It’s no debate that the deaths of children at the hands of a dictator they don’t even know or a conflict they don’t fully understand is completely unacceptable. Trump’s most recent airstrike may be an act of violence in itself, but it is a necessary evil that sends an important message to the Syrian and Russian leaders, a message that the use of chemical and biological weapons will not and should not be tolerated.
The editorial board of the Washington Post expressed shortly after the airstrike that “It is vital that the international prohibition against the use of those horrific [chemical and biological] agents be upheld.” Malicious actions like Assad’s chemical attack, in addition to many uses of chemical warfare in the past, should absolutely not be received with borderline appeasement; averting to diplomacy when Syrian children are actively being gassed by an tyrannical, authoritarian government will not be effective. History proves that. “Assad is determined to cement his grip once again over Syria,” writes Thanassis Cambanis of The Atlantic, “no matter how thoroughly he has to destroy his country in order to restore it.” I understand that there are concerns over the potential implications of this airstrike. I understand that we all have reason to dislike President Trump (I certainly do). But actively showing that the U.S. will not tolerate the use of chemical warfare—regardless of the sticky foreign policy web we’re currently trapped in—is more important for the well-being of Syrian citizens.