Bashar al-Assad has to be stopped. His regime is marked with brutality, torture, the deliberate targeting of civilians and the repeated use of chlorine. Those who have long called for his forcible removal and those who believe any military intervention is wrong and dangerous may well ask what has changed.
The fact is that the US attack was ordered by Donald Trump, a man without a coherent worldview or moral compass, who publicly called on Barack Obama to not take action after Assad’s forces used sarin to kill more than 1,000 people in 2013. Sarin has only been used a handful of times: by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988 and Assad, whose troops now used sarin again.
Deploying military force, unilaterally, without UN approval will always be controversial. The risks are even more serious when considering this long and complex war involving Russia and Iran. So far this has been presented as a discrete, largely symbolic action, sending a message on chemical weapons specifically. The US has targeted the airbase it says was used to launch the sarin attack. It warned the Russians in advance, with the aim of avoiding a confrontation. Many, including the UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have supported it.
The strike is being read in the light of Steve Bannon’s departure from the National Security Council and the rise of National Security Adviser HR McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis. There's also the story of Bannon's battle with Jared Kushner for influence. So, some will see this recent development as a victory for “globalists” who want to reassert that America will uphold its values internationally and for experienced “grown-ups”, who coordinated this measured military action.
Apparently, Trump's decision was driven in part by his emotional reaction to photos of the sarin attack. Don't get me wrong compassion is welcome in a president. It's impulsive responses that are not. Besides, he didn't show any compassion for Syrian refugees.
But if you think about it, you'll see there's more to it than that.
A president facing historically low poll ratings will probably see a boost in his approval rating because military action is usually popular. With little to show for his first 11 weeks in office, the president ordered an action that could not be blocked by Congress or the courts. A politician facing an unprecedented scandal over his campaign’s dealings with Russia and Moscow’s interference in the election has put distance between himself and the Kremlin. A poll bump could encourage him to take rash action elsewhere, maybe Pyongyang. And no one knows what Kim Jong-un is capable of.
In any case, this airstrike is unlikely to stop the sustained and systematic crimes against humanity in Syria. We are no closer to a solution to the Syrian tragedy. All we have is a slightly clearer picture of a world defined by Trump’s impulses.
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