On April 4, 2017, Syrian Dictator Basher Assad’s forces killed 27 children, and more than 80 people, in a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Just a few days later, President Trump ordered a targeted military strike with about 60 precision guided missiles on the airfield from where the chemical attack was launched.
The presidential statement on the attack provided the following justifications:
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 U.N. Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
In appearances before the media, President Trump made several additional comments.
Trump made it clear that the chemical attack was a "consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing." This statement referenced the 2012 Syrian red line, when Obama said that if the Syrian regime moved around or utilized chemical weapons, then he would initiate combat strike(s). When the Syrian dictator used them a year later, however, Obama hemmed and hawed, before eventually choosing not to punish Assad. His administration then agreed to an international deal with Russia that would supposedly remove all the chemical weapons from the Assad regime’s hands. Obviously, this agreement did no such thing, as Syria continued to use chemical weapons, as it still does today.
Trump also echoed the language used by Obama on his red line, by saying "(w)hen you kill innocent children… with a chemical gas … that crosses many, many lines."
Later, Trump added, "These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated. … That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me -- big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing."
To sum up, President Trump has presented six different justifications for his missile strike. They are: 1) to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons; 2) to enforce the international agreement(s) banning chemical weapons possession and use in Syria; 3) to prevent the continuing destabilization of the region and U.S. allies; 4) to reclaim U.S. credibility; 5) to enforce his own red line; and 6) for humanitarian reasons.
I agree with President Trump’s limited and targeted action based on four of these reasons.
While I don’t sanction the use of chemical weapons, it is unclear to me why the use of chemical weapons creates a situation so unique as to prompt U.S. action. Most of the civilians that Assad has killed in Syria — hundreds of thousands in number — were murdered by conventional weapons. What is the difference? Further, in the past, the U.S. has certainly not intruded into other conflicts where chemical weapons were used, such as in Yemen, Chad, and Iraq. So why now?
This leads directly to the next national interest stated by President Trump; to enforce an international agreement. In 2013, the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal, whereby Russia agreed to persuade its ally, Syria, to remove or destroy all of its chemical weapons. In 2016, an international organization declared these weapons were gone. When agreements with the U.S. are broken, there must be consequences.
Then there is the destabilization of the region and the endangering of U.S. allies in the region. This is undoubtedly true. The flow of millions of Syrian refugees has also destabilized much of Western Europe. Chemical weapons create a special fear in the hearts of civilians, and it’s reasonable to believe if this chemical strike by Assad had been ignored, it would almost certainly have exacerbated the refugee flow, and the related terrorism threat in Europe.
Most importantly, the U.S. needed to respond to this use of chemical weapons because, in general, U.S. credibility was at stake. In 2012, President Obama drew his red line regarding chemical weapons. From this inaction, a green light was given to foreign nations to act aggressively, as they no longer feared a U.S. military response. In the Middle East, Russia sent its military into Syria to prop up Assad, which led to the stabilization of the Assad regime. Iran also boosted its aggressive actions throughout the region. This aggression, and the disturbing belief by the rest of the world in U.S. weakness, could not be allowed to continue.
And when President Trump doubled down, by drawing his own the red line immediately after the attack, he had to follow through, as his own credibility was now at issue.
Finally, in a perfect world, humanitarian concerns would be a legitimate reason for the U.S. to engage in military force against another nation. But in this imperfect world, the U.S. has no responsibility to protect. It is simply impossible, considering the number of humanitarian crises each year, for the U.S. to punish every significant act of brutality throughout the globe. This is why the U.S. did not get militarily involved in prior conflicts, such as the bloody civil wars that killed millions in the Congo and the Sudan. Assad’s chemical attack was disgusting, but that itself was not a reason for a U.S. military response.
President Trump’s military strike on President Assad was a necessity. After eight years of a U.S. President wearing a "Kick Me" Sign on his back, President Trump had to show that the U.S. Sheriff was back in town.
Adam Turner is the General Counsel and Legislative Affairs Director for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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