A week ago, Donald Trump’s administration had accepted Bashar al-Assad’s leadership of Syria as a “political reality”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked: “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” No change to the long-standing US position of non-intervention against the Ba’athist regime (a stance Trump had supported) seemed likely.
But the horrific chemical weapons attack on Idlib province prompted a renewed round of western soul-searching. As the outrage grew, Trump saw a chance to do what Barack Obama did not and punish Assad. Last night, the US fired cruise missiles on the Syrian airfield from where the sarin gas atrocity was launched. The American response, which consisted of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the guided-missile destroyers USS Ross and Porter in the eastern Mediterranean, took place at 8.40pm eastern standard time (4.40am in Syria). Trump acted without Congressional or UN approval, leading some to question the legal basis for the attack.
The US president, who was hosting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, declared: “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed, and failed very dramatically”.
There is no indication that Trump intends to launch a full-scale offensive against Assad. Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis said: “Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons”.
The UK government was given advance notice of the US attack but was not invited to play any role. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said: “We fully support this strike – it was limited, it was appropriate, and it was designed to target the aircraft and the equipment that the US believe were used in the chemical attack; and to deter President Assad from carrying out future chemical attacks.” He added that the UK government would seek parliamentary authorisation for any military action.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron also supported the US strikes. He said: “The attack by American forces was a proportionate response to the barbarous attack by the Syrian government on its own people.” He added: “The British government rather than just putting out a bland statement welcoming this should now follow it up and call an emergency meeting of the Nato alliance to see what else can be done, be that more surgical strikes or no fly zones.
“Evil happens when good people do nothing, we cannot sit by while a dictator gasses his own people. We cannot stand by, we must act.”
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned that “unilateral military action without legal authorisation or independent verification risks intensifying a multi-sided conflict that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people.” He added: “What is needed instead is to urgently reconvene the Geneva peace talks and unrelenting international pressure for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
“The terrible suffering of the Syrian people must be brought to an end as soon as possible and every intervention must be judged on what contribution it makes to that outcome.
“The British government should urge restraint on the Trump administration and throw its weight behind peace negotiations and a comprehensive political settlement.”
George Osborne, a long-standing supporter of Syrian intervention, tweeted: “So it takes @realDonaldTrump to re-establish the West’s 100 yr old redline against the abhorrent use of chemical weapons.”