When Donald Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase on Thursday night, it was in one sense entirely ordinary. Politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Hillary Clinton, have been promoting aggression against Syrian president Bashar al Assad for years; after the attack, senators ranging from Republican John McCain to Democratic leader Chuck Schumer were praising the strike. And of course Trump's action was in response to a brutal chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians that has been attributed to Assad—the administration indicated on Wednesday that it was considering taking action against the vicious strongman.
What was shocking about the move was that it came so suddenly. Four years ago, after a similar chemical weapons attack in Syria, Trump insisted that the US should not get involved in the conflict. Most observers assumed that Trump would tolerate Assad in the name of wiping out ISIS, who opposes the Syrian government—in fact, that's exactly what the US government policy seemed to be as recently as last week. The about-face, more than the attack itself, has the entire world asking a lot of questions as of Friday. Here are some of them:
Has the US policy in Syria changed?
Before this week, Trump's stance toward the long-running civil war made some kind of sense: He was willing to cooperate with Assad and Assad's ally Russia (despite the atrocities committed by those actors) to wipe out ISIS, which Trump obviously regarded as the US's number-one antagonist. Does this strike mean that calculus has changed? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has insisted that this was an isolated action meant to punish Assad for the chemical attack—there's no sign that Trump will try to remove the Syrian leader through force, though the US disapproves of his actions. But obviously the willingness to strike at Assad directly represents a shift in policy from the cautious days of Barack Obama, who was hesitant to use force in Syria. If Assad commits another atrocity, does that mean Trump will ratchet up the response? What happens then?
Why did this single chemical weapons attack change Trump's mind?
The argument for attacking Assad has an alluring sheen of moral clarity: Assad is by all accounts a brutal tyrant who has ordered the slaughter of peaceful protesters and the mass execution of thousands of prisoners. After the missile strike, Trump spoke about the "beautiful babies" who "were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack." But as many pointed out, beautiful babies have been getting murdered in Syria for years. Trump didn't call for anti-Assad intervention before this week. Is the difference simply that he is in the White House now? If that's the case, what other aspects of his foreign policy could be subject to change?
Does this mean Trump is OK with humanitarian intervention in general?
If this is about policing the behavior of dangerous leaders like Assad, does that mean Trump is endorsing the idea the US should step in to prevent atrocities? What about the atrocities going on right now in South Sudan or the alleged war crimes committed by US ally Saudi Arabia in Yemen? Why is Trump concerned about human rights in this single case?
Why weren't international institutions involved?
According to a report from BuzzFeed, at least some US allies were informed of the attack beforehand, including Israel and Jordan. Many nations endorsed the attack afterward. But it was a unquestionably a unilateral move unlike, for instance, the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 that Obama led. If this was about signaling to Assad that the world would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, why not at least try to get other countries onboard? And does this mean that Trump would consider unilateral action in other conflicts?
Will this change the dynamic of the war?
Syrian rebels naturally called for more US action against Assad, but that seems unlikely. As for Assad, he could conceivably retaliate against US forces or US-backed groups in the region, but that would obviously risk escalation. Everyone is waiting for what comes next, essentially.
Where will the antagonization of Russia lead?
Russians at the Syrian airbase were warned prior to the attack. Still, this was a provocation—especially since the Trump administration blamed the Russians for failing to get Assad to eliminate his stockpile of chemical weapons, as it promised in a 2013 deal with Obama. "Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013, so either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement," Tillerson said in a statement. Russia has responded by denouncing the missile strike and suspending an agreement that prevented US and Russian forces in the country from accidentally attacking each other. Russia is also bolstering anti-aircraft defenses at Syrian airbases. Tillerson is going to Moscow next week; that's going to be an interesting summit.
Was the attack even legal?
When Obama started operations against ISIS in Syria, his White House used as justification one of two authorizations of military force (AUMFs) Congress approved in the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Though Obama asked Congress to pass a new AUMF, lawmakers didn't act, and the military continued its anti-ISIS campaign. So what's Trump's justification for this new action, which he didn't consult Congress about? The US would have the right to attack Assad under international law if Syria was threatening America, but the legal authorization of unilateral action in response to an atrocity is much murkier, as Lawfare explains—though the administration could justify the attack in a lot of ways.
Finally, if Trump really cares about the "beautiful babies" killed in this conflict, why is he still set on stopping Syrian refugees from coming to America?
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