Ever since Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people last week and President Trump vowed to respond, the pressing question has been: What would that response look like—a limited, one-time strike or something more expansive and dangerous? Since it appears Trump opted for the former—his ridiculous “mission accomplished” tweet this morning seemed to be further confirmation that this is over, at least for the time being—we can assess the arguments for and against what was done.
The case against last night’s airstrikes is straightforward and pretty convincing. For one thing, as with last year’s similar strikes, they were probably illegal. As quite a few Democrats and a few Republicans are pointing out, Congress did not authorize this action. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s argument on Friday night that the president was authorized to order strikes under Article II of the constitution is dubious, given that it’s hard to argue Assad’s chemical weapons attacks threatened Americans or U.S. interests. Paul Ryan’s argument earlier this week that a strike on a regime fighting against al-Qaida is justified by the 2001 authorization targeting the perpetrators of 9/11—in other words, al-Qaida—is patently ridiculous. In his remarks last night, the president referred to international law, namely Assad’s violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but these strikes were not authorized by the U.N. Security Council. And though Britain and France participated, they were not even sanctioned by a multilateral coalition like NATO.
As for the strategic case, given that the action was fairly limited, in order to minimize the risk of Russian and civilian casualties—the Pentagon says other chemical weapons targets were left undestroyed because of those risks—it seems unlikely to do more to deter Assad’s future chemical weapons use than last year’s strikes. Even if it does, the focus on chemical weapons also sends the implicit message that any of the other forms of atrocity against civilians this regime has engaged in—barrel bombs, torture, rape, mass starvation—are tolerable. If the strikes have any impact at all on the larger conflict in Syria, they are more likely to lengthen than shorten it.
But the case for the strikes should not be immediately dismissed either. Chemical weapons are different. Assad is violating an international norm that actually predates the first widespread use of these weapons in World War I and has been fairly successful at limiting them. More importantly, he’s violating a specific agreement made in 2013 to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over his stockpile. At a time when the Chemical Weapons Convention is being flouted, not just in Syria but also on the streets of England, last night’s strikes show that there can be consequences to such violations. Assad may consider these strikes a manageable price to pay, but most world leaders don’t really want to be in Assad’s position. As with nuclear-related sanctions, the strikes are as much about deterring future use as about punishing violators.
Also, while the lack of U.N. approval, due to Russia’s veto on the Security Council, weakens the legal case for intervention, international law is rarely cut and dried. Given that Russia, as Assad’s patron, is at least somewhat complicit in his crimes, it’s hard to make a moral case that its approval should be required before any action is taken to punish them.
The strikes also send a message that Russia cannot fully dictate the terms of the Syrian conflict—its claims throughout the week that it would shoot down any U.S. missiles appear to have been bluster, and its new threats of reprisals are likely much of the same. The risks of direct conflict are real and shouldn’t be downplayed, but the U.S. and its allies have at least shown it is possible to take on Assad without provoking a shooting war between two nuclear-armed superpowers.
At the very least, Trump’s critics in the U.S. should acknowledge that the limited action taken on Friday was not some sort of warmongering Trumpian lunacy. Many members of Barack Obama’s administration wanted him to take similar action in 2013, and it’s not at all a stretch to imagine Hillary Clinton doing the same under the circumstances faced by Trump.
However, this action can’t be considered in isolation, and the man making the decision does matter. If this was a largely symbolic move, then the larger context of the Trump administration affects that symbolism. The leader Trump now calls “animal Assad” was just as much of a war criminal, and just as willing to kill and torture innocent children, when Trump was touting him as a potential partner against ISIS during his presidential campaign. Trump’s opposition to admitting the victims of the Syrian war to the U.S. as refugees, and his removal of safeguards meant to prevent civilian casualties from anti-ISIS airstrikes undermine his sudden concern for the Syrian people. Just as his praise of other tyrants around the world and his past cavalier attitude toward torture and nuclear weapons undermine his sudden concern for human rights and the laws of war. It’s hard to build a moral case for humanitarian intervention, always a dicey business to begin with, if you have no humanitarian credibility.
Even if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume he is just uniquely concerned about the proliferation and use of chemical weapons, he has not been consistent on that front either. When asked Friday night why the numerous chlorine gas attacks over the past year did not provoke a similar response, Mattis didn’t have much of an answer.
Taking the legal and strategic objections into account, it’s still possible to imagine a situation where limited strikes like those we saw Friday night could be justified and potentially even lead to a positive outcome, particularly if coupled with an overall effort to protect Syrian civilians and a diplomatic offensive to match the military one, aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict. The past year has given little reason for confidence that that’s what we’re going to see now.