On the 6th Of April 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that he had ordered a targeted military strike on an airfield in Syria. The strike is said to be a response to the chemical attack which had been allegedly launched by the Syrian Government a few days before and which caused the death of around 100 people according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although this strike may appear noble, there are many aspects that suggest it has done more harm than good and that it was not really undertaken in the interest of the Syrian people.
First, the strike was launched before having undertaken any independent investigation of the chemical attack. Some would argue that the culprit is well known, namely the Syrian government’s forces. However, far from trying to exonerate Bashar Al Assad and his 6 years campaign of bombing the Syrian population, an investigation would have offered more insights of what happened and more indications on who was responsible. There was apparently no definitive conclusion shortly before the US Strike. Now, such attack has exacerbated the tensions and, with the deadlock at the United Nation Security Council level, has rendered more difficult the negotiations to have parties to the war fully cooperate with an independent investigation, let alone a political transition and an end to the war.
Secondly, the strike was launched with disregard for both US and International law. Under US law, the strikes should have received Congress’s approval. The irony is that back in 2013, Donald Trump warned the then US President Barack Obama of the necessity to ask for Congress’s approval for such things, as well as repeatedly saying that an intervention in Syria was not the right move.
While some people argue on whether US laws were actually violated, at International level, the strikes did violate international law. The United Nations Charter recognises two justifications for using force on another country’s soil without its consent: the permission of the UN Security Council or a self-defense claim. In the case of Syria, the UN did not approve the strike, and the US Defense Department justified it as “intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again”, which is not self-defense.
Some might argue that such action might have been necessary because members of the UN Security Council, notably Russia, have so far vetoed almost every resolution concerning Syria, which means that getting a positive vote for any action against Assad was wishful thinking. But does that justify violating international law?
US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, said that “The use of prohibited chemical weapons, which violates a number of international norms and violates existing agreements, called for this type of a response, which is a kinetic military response.”
He, therefore, more than implied that it was justified to violate international law because another state did so. This kind of unilateral action is a slippery slope as it further undermines international law and reinforces a sense of anarchy in international relations, putting aside cooperation which is badly needed to address the Syrian Crisis. Furthermore, many actors have repeatedly declared that there was no military solution to the conflict in Syria (1,2).
The last aspect is that, in his announcement, President Trump justified the strike pointing to the heinous nature of the chemical attacks: “Beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack”. A few days before, he said that the attack “crossed many, many lines”.
While the use of chemical weapons against people is indeed appalling and illegal, this suggests that Syrians which have died by bullets, mortars or barrel bombs over the past 6 six years is somehow more tolerable. Does it not deserve similar reaction?
Furthermore, there is an uncomfortable double standard: While Donald Trump laments over chemical attacks killing people, emphasizing that “No child of God should ever suffer such horror” and calls for an end to the “slaughter and bloodshed in Syria”, his administration has sought to establish a ban on Syrian refugees, and US airstrikes reportedly killed approximately 300 civilians in Syria last October and 200 in Iraq three weeks ago.
Whether the intention was to change Assad’s behaviour, distract the public attention from domestic issues, create a rally-round-the-flag effect to boost his popularity or appear “tough” towards Syria and Russia, one thing appears certain: Trump’s decision to strike was not in the interest of the Syrian people.