Could Donald Trump really have done more to restore the international order after just 11 weeks of his presidency than Barack Obama did during the last five years of his? After the Syrian regime launched a chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib province in north-western Syria, earlier this week, the United States responded early this morning by targeting the facility from which the attack was launched.
As many as 80 people were killed in the chemical attack, many of them children. The images of the dead children have shamed the world and evidently moved Trump to act.
Overnight UK time, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles struck the Shayrat airbase in western Homs, resulting in six fatalities. It is hard to think of another occasion when US policy has changed quite so dramatically or quickly.
Just last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US did not regard the removal of President Bashar al-Assad as a priority, and that his long-term future would be “decided by the Syrian people”. His language was widely interpreted at the time as a signal from Washington that Assad would be secure under the Trump administration, which might have emboldened the dictator to authorise the chemical attack. (The Syrian regime and its Russians allies and protectors have denied that chemical weapons were used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.)
Yet, less than 48 hours after the chemical weapons attack, Trump has responded with a decisive message. He was able to do so because American military planners have been long pondering how to design an effective deterrence strategy for the Syrian regime.
What transpired is therefore the enactment of a long-deliberated plan. Authorising targeted strikes against Syrian military installations whenever the regime brazenly flouts international conventions is supposed to send Assad a message that he is being held accountable and that, for example, the use of chemical agents will not be tolerated.
The architects of this approach have also stressed its utility in allowing the United States to avoid direct confrontation with Russia – an undesirable and dangerous outcome. As a result, the White House gave Russia advance warning of its intention to strike last night, ensuring that only Syrian military assets were degraded. Indeed, the BBC has reported that a convoy of Russian vehicles left the airbase shortly before the strikes.
American presidents enjoy this kind of “gunboat diplomacy” to send rogue leaders a message. Bill Clinton repeatedly launched retributive strikes against Saddam Hussein whenever he was deemed to have overstepped the mark, and so did Ronald Reagan against the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 1986.
Cruise missiles were launched in 1993 after a plot by Iraqi agents to assassinate Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, was thwarted. Iraqi forces were also struck in 1996 after they mobilised against the Kurds, a frequently persecuted group under Saddam’s brutal rule; and again in 1998, when the Clinton administration launched a four-day assault against facilities believed to be manufacturing weapons of mass destruction (British troops participated in this campaign).
That is probably how these attacks should be seen for now: as a reaction and response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons rather than as a significant shift in US policy. However, Trump is a mercurial and unpredictable president. Anything could happen from here. Tillerson is scheduled to visit Russia next week on a pre-arranged visit which will likely give a better indication of the administration’s longer-term ambitions.
For the moment, however, the White House is talking tough. Tillerson has said “steps are underway” to form a coalition that will remove Assad and that he can have “no role” in governing Syria. Meanwhile, Donald Trump described the strike on Syria as being in America’s “national security interest”.
International momentum has swung behind Trump. Downing Street described the attack as an “appropriate response” (notably, Theresa May voted for military action in 2013 after Assad used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta). The French foreign minister also welcomed the US intervention, saying the use of chemical weapons is a war crime which must be “punished”.
All politicians bluff and bluster, of course, and the Trump administration is perhaps more prone to this than most. Whatever follows, the significance of this American attack on Syria is invested in the fact it happened at all. For more than five years, President Obama watched as the Syrian war raged on and an unconscionable humanitarian crisis unfolded.
Now, perhaps for the first time since the crisis began in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad might just be forced to think before he acts. That alone, as Trump would say, is “yuge”.