Trump scores political points with Syrian air strikes
Syria | Congress waits to hear the president’s longer-term strategy in the region
by Evan Wilt
Posted 4/11/17, 10:37 am
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump’s decision to launch air strikes against Syria for its illegal chemical weapons use last week earned him bipartisan praise, but the United States’ broader Middle East strategy remains unclear.
Late Thursday, Trump ordered the U.S. military to strike a Syrian airfield with about 60 Tomahawk missiles in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons two days prior. The gas attack killed dozens of Syrians, including many children. Images of Syrian children gasping and foaming at the mouth started to spread around the world quickly.
The one-off U.S. air strike targeted the airfield from where Assad deployed the chemical weapons. The missile strike caused significant damage to the base and, though civilians were not targeted, killed nine noncombatants, including four Syrian children. Trump received acclaim from both ends of the political spectrum for his quick response to Assad’s war crime, but experts say what follows will be even more pivotal.
“In terms of what [Trump] did it was smart and in terms of the region it was also smart—the region needed to hear this,” Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute and former State Department official, told me. “For many people, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a United States—which is concerned about something as horrific as chemical weapon use—say they are going to do something or says they’re concerned and actually does something.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor following the Syrian air strikes that making sure Assad knows he will pay a price when he commits atrocities was the right thing to do.
Other Democrats agreed it was the correct action to take, including former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote in The New York Times that Trump’s decision to act was a turning point in U.S. relations in the region following the Obama administration.
“In one night, President Trump turned the tables,” Cotton wrote. “He showed the world that when the United States issues a warning, it will back up its words with action. There was no hand-wringing, no straw-man choice between doing nothing and launching a massive ground invasion, no dithering for consultations with others who do not have the power to act.”
Assad renounced chemical weapons use almost four years ago and has since denied responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
In 2013, Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, claimed Syria had voluntarily given up its stockpile of chemical weapons. Obama used that claim as part of his reasoning for not using force when Assad killed more of his people with the toxic gas in August of that year.
On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the images of gassed children from Syria moved Trump: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president.”
But now in the aftermath of the air strike, many are looking for a more coherent strategy for handling Assad and Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists who have run amok in Syria.
Spicer declined to explain the details of Trump’s Syria strategy but said the president was not afraid to act and would always put America first.
“We are acting in haste, without making sure that our use of force is serving our political strategy rather than determining it,” wrote Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “So we can feel good that we punched back against a dictator who is brutalizing his own people, but the bombing will do little to advance American goals in Syria without more dramatic and lasting changes.”
Several Republicans and Democrats in Congress stated concerns about Trump’s conducting a military strike without first consulting them.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., convened an all-senators meeting to talk about Syria after the vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Last night, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a memo to fellow Democrats about Syria and scheduled a conference call with them later today to talk about next steps.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared on multiple cable news programs over the weekend to discuss the White House’s reasoning. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., criticized Tillerson for saying the United States could work simultaneously to remove Assad from power while also weeding out ISIS from the region.
Fernandez told me working toward both of those goals was the right thing to do, but following through would be extremely difficult.
Meanwhile, the air strikes are complicating U.S. diplomacy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow this week to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and later President Vladimir Putin over Syria. He told journalists at a G-7 summit in Italy earlier today he hoped to persuade the Kremlin to abandon its alliance with Assad, whose reign “is coming to an end.”
Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.