Of Red Lines and Tomahawks: Making Sense of the United States’ Role in Syria

By YOUSUF ALI, Opinions Editor 

Last week, there was a chemical weapons attack on rebel-controlled areas in the Northwestern city of Idlib, Syria. This came less than a week after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson abandoned the standard Obama rhetoric of “Assad[Syria’s dictator] must go.” Two days later, President Trump announced in a press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan that his position on Assad had changed because of what the Syrian regime’s murder of “beautiful little babies.” At the time, no one was sure exactly what he meant, but that became clear the very next day. President Trump ordered the launching 59 Tomahawk missiles against the Shayrat air base from which the earlier chemical weapons attack was reportedly conducted, and the president made a statement telling the world that it was retaliation for that very same attack. This action alone establishes the Trump administration as far more hawkish than its predecessor on Assad. The real question is what happens next.

Predictably, Assad supporters have decried this attack as a blatant act of war against the Syrian state while his opponents have welcomed this development. Understandably, many are fearful that this situation will escalate into an all-out war against Syria. This is a valid concern as the U.S. has 1,000 troops on Syrian soil. Even though these men and women were deployed to fight the so-called Islamic State, there is risk that, now, they will face attacks from Assad and his allies’ forces. Some sympathetic to Assad and Russia are parroting the same slogan of “Hands off Syria” that we heard when Obama considered his own military action after the 2013’s chemical weapons attack. It should be noted that many of same people up in arms about the United States destroying a military target did not bat an eye at the wanton destruction of Aleppo by Russian forces the world witnessed in December of last year. The mere fact that Russia was supporting Assad is enough for them to gloss over blatant war crimes.

Furthermore, opponents of targeting the Assad regime warn of Syria becoming another Iraq. This may have passed for a compelling argument if it weren’t for one fact: Syria is enormously worse off than Iraq. In fact, there are 230,000 Syrian refugees living in Iraq giving the lie to suggestions that mass-murder somehow stabilizes Syria. That said, military action by our country is not to be taken lightly. As such, hypocrisy by some of its opponents is hardly sufficient reason to engage in it.

Regardless of the merits of military action against Assad, the President must follow a strict procedure before doing so. Certainly, anybody with a shred of humanity within them was outraged by the images coming out of Idlib. I admit to feeling some satisfaction at the thought of Syrian war criminals finally reaping the consequences of the death and destruction they have left behind;  however, good policy is not based on our visceral reactions and feelings. Unlike some on the left, I am not reflexively opposed to the use of military force; however, I believe it must meet strict conditions.

The most obvious objection to the president’s actions comes from Article 1 Section 10 of the Constitution, which states that military force may not be used without Congress’s consent, “unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.” Senator and vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine (Dem-Virg.) made this exact point even though he has supported military action against Assad’s government for chemical weapons use in 2013. This constitutional requirement serves a clear purpose in ensuring that there is robust debate and investigation before taking the drastic step of going to war. A well-thought out debate allows the country to form a clear strategy to deal with the consequences that inevitably follow from war. Given that the administration took a 180 degree turn in the matter of couple days on Assad, there is no way that this attack had an appropriate level of planning. The next logical question is: Where do we go from here?

Without any doubt, the strike on Thursday was premature and lacked any real planning, but now that it’s happened, the country has to determine what to do next. To start, the administration should release full details regarding the planning of this attack to Congress and appropriately-filtered details to the general public. This would allow the country to understand better exactly what happened on April 6, 2017. From there, Congress could do what it should have done from the very start: begin debate and hearings regarding the merits of future military action against the Assad regime. Luckily, there are voices in Congress on both sides of the question from both parties. This is a good sign since it signals that members are exercising their independent judgement rather than simply falling in line with whatever their party leadership says as we have seen on domestic issues over the past few months. It’s a good example of the famous saying by Arthur Vandenberg (Rep.-Mich): “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” Indeed, if we are to respond appropriately to the Syrian situation, then we cannot allow our partisan affiliations to cloud our judgment.

The United States’s attack on the Syrian military came as a surprise to everyone. There’s no doubt that the world could not ignore the countless war crimes committed by Assad’s regime, however, the Trump administration went about it in an improper manner. Now that the strike already happened, the best way to deal with the situation is have the robust debate about any further action the US should take in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. Perhaps, this could be used as a way of showing Assad and his allies that their crimes have consequences, but we won’t have any idea until we have a serious public debate. If the United States utilizes this development correctly, there may be hope of bringing about an end to this conflict which has claimed so many lives.