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Donald Trump has done the right thing in Syria for the wrong reasons

Unauthorised and inconsistent intervention bodes ill for Trump's presidency. 

 When I was working for Ben Brogan at the Telegraph, he always used to tell me of the importance of "stress-testing the narrative".

Donald Trump's decision to authorise missile strikes on Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria - the first direct intervention by the United States in the Syrian war - upends many of our assumptions about America's new president, but confirms others.

Yes, the investigation into whether the Kremlin may have co-ordinated with the Trump campaign remains open, and Trump may well owe his presidency to Russian interference. But it's hard now to claim that the Trump administration is a puppet of Vladimir Putin, particularly as Rex Tillerson has separately announced that it is now the American government's objective to seek "regime change" in Syria.

As far as the need for a response to Assad's use of sarin gas goes, it's worth revisiting Rory Stewart's 2013 blog. His case for the importance of a response (that the international prohibition on the use of chemical warfare should remain in place) remains convincing while his three conditions that response must satisfy (not to make the conditions for the civilian population worse, to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to send a clear message that the use of weapons will not be tolerated elsewhere) continue to be essential. And as Yvette Cooper noted in her excellent 2015 speech, there can be no defeat of the self-styled Islamic State that doesn't involve the permanent removal of the Assad regime as well.

(It's worth noting too that the attack has been welcomed by the bulk of Syrian activists.)

There's a "but" coming though, and it's a big one. All of that has be weighed against the parts of the Trump narrative that have been reinforced, and terrifyingly so, by last night's bombing. The first is that Trump has acted without Congressional or international authorisation, part of the pattern noted in this week's Spectator: that Trump's approach is war and more war, and largely without legislative oversight.

The second is what it confirms about the volatility and unreliability of Trump. The case against "narrowing the circle of what is prohibited" as Stewart put it remains unchanged since 2013 when Trump angrily campaigned against bombing. The case against Assad as part of the solution in Syria remains unchanged since last year's presidential race, when Trump ran on a platform of doing a deal with Assad. When the facts change, I change my mind: but the facts haven't changed. What has changed is that Trump saw something he didn't like on TV. What will he see next week?

That Trump has acted against the use of chemical weapons and in accordance with the wishes the bulk of Syrian activist groups should be welcomed. That he has done so without authorisation, apparently off the back of a TV report is worrying. 

As I wrote earlier this week, the absence of direct intervention in Syria has been a disaster. That doesn't mean that the unauthorised and inconsistent intervention of a volatile president will be any more successful.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.