For the second time in just over a year, President Donald J. Trump has launched an illegal and unnecessary airstrike against the government of Syria for a crime it may very well not have committed.
The joint US-French-British strike on three alleged chemical weapons facilities in the vicinity of Damascus and Homs were carried out, according to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in order to defend “vital American interests.”
The air strikes, carried out in the absence of congressional authorization or a UN Security Council mandate, come almost a week after a chemical-weapons attack in the city of Douma, which killed 70. Some estimate that up to 500 people—mainly women and children—were hospitalized by the gas attack, which is said to have been carried out by the government of Bashar al-Assad.
To no one’s surprise, Trump’s decision to risk World War III was met with approval by US media and political elites who have been calling for blood ever since the reports of the chemical attack emerged last week.
The Washington Post editorial board was of the opinion that “Chemical attacks should be answered with cruise missiles.” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer deemed the “pinpointed, limited action” an “appropriate response.” The president of the New America Foundation, Anne Marie Slaughter, tweeted that she believes that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France did “the right thing” by striking Syria. The Brookings Institution’s Martin Indyk gave President Trump “three cheers” for “enforcing the line against Syrian chemical weapons use.”
Yet even The New York Times was moved to express concern that “the new strikes posed the risk of drawing the United States more deeply into a conflict in which Russia and Iran have more invested than ever in keeping Mr. Assad in power.”
The airstrikes are but the latest in a long line of US interventions in the Syrian civil war. The United States has been intervening directly in Syrian domestic affairs since 2011, when then-Ambassador Robert Ford toured the country in support of the anti-government protests; the United States has been funneling arms to the radical jihadi opposition since at least 2012; last year the Trump administration lobbed a series of cruise missiles against Syria; the US military currently has upwards of 2,000 troops stationed on the ground, in violation of international law.
With these latest strikes, the administration is putting the United States on the wrong side of international law and is running the risk of a hot war with Russia and Iran over a chemical-weapons attack about which we still have little evidence.
Is it possible that Assad is behind the chemical-weapons attack? Of course. The UN and the OPCW have concluded that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in several instances in 2014 and 2015. But the provenance of more recent attacks is still unclear. In February, for example, Secretary Mattis asserted his belief that Assad used sarin during the Trump administration, but when pressed by reporters, he admitted that “we do not have evidence of it.”
And while last November’s OPCW-UN report pinned the blame for the April 2017 chemical-weapons attack on Assad, the late investigative journalist Robert Parry pointed out that the report also contained evidence that “more than 100 victims of sarin exposure were taken to several area hospitals before the alleged Syrian warplane could have struck the town of Khan Sheikhoun.”
And then there is the issue of motive: On the verge of victory after a brutal and costly war, does it make sense that Assad would opt to commit the one sure thing that would unite the international community against him, draw airstrikes by the United States and its coalition partners—and perhaps more?
This of course doesn’t rule out Assad, but it does raise some uncomfortable questions for those cheering yet another illegal US military attack against a country that has been under attack for the past seven years by the same forces that attacked us on 9/11.
Meanwhile, only a few principled voices have come forward to denounce the reckless, illegal strikes.
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal condemned the air strikes as “not only unconstitutional” but also as possibly “escalating a conflict that could send us into a war with multiple countries.” Iraq war veteran and Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard expressed concern that “military action in Syria could escalate into a war with Russia and Iran.” “How,” asked Gabbard, “does going to war with Russia over Syria serve the interests of the American people?” California Representative Ro Khanna called Trump’s strike on Syria “unconstitutional” and observed that “our call for regime change in 2011 made the crisis worse.”
Those who cheer this most recent intervention all too easily forget the lessons of Iraq and Libya—in so doing they also denigrate international multilateral bodies that they so often claim to believe in. There is after all, an international body charged with investigating such cases: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
It is the role of that body and then perhaps later, the International Criminal Court at the Hague, to deal with Assad’s brutal transgressions—it is not the job of the Trump administration to act as judge, jury, and executioner.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized a quote by Secretary Mattis. That passage was subsequently edited, but without sufficient context, and the correction itself was not noted. The Nation’s policy is to indicate all significant corrections with a note. We apologize to our readers for the error.