President Donald Trump on Thursday ordered a missile attack on a Syrian airbase the U.S. believes was the launching point for Tuesday’s chemical attack. Tomahawk cruise missiles, 59 of them, launched from the USS Porter and USS Ross pounded Shayrat Airbase in Hom province. The White House is touting the strike as indication that President Trump is taking a more resolute approach towards Assad than that of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
The strike came in response to Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in Idlib Province. The attack, which appears to have been carried out with Sarin nerve gas, killed at least 86 people, 26 children among them. Photos of dead and dying children galvanized outrage towards the Assad regime as they spread on social media this week.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” – President Trump
Tensions with Russia
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lashed out on Thursday at Russia’s failure to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under an agreement struck following the Assad regime’s 2013 chemical attack on civilians in Ghouta. “Either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement, Tillerson said.
The change in tone was notable for the stark reversal it represents. Just a week ago, Trump administration officials seemed resigned to accepting the status quo in Syria’s complex civil war, and were looking to strike a deal with Russia to contain its ally Iran and ultimately find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
The offensive represents a significant break between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been supporting Syrian President Bashir al-Assad in the countries bloody civil war. The U.S. and other western nations blame Assad for the attack. The Assad regime and Russia denied that Syrian government forces were responsible.
Moscow reacted furiously to the U.S. missile strikes calling them an “act of aggression” and a violation of international law. The Russian foreign ministry announced on Friday that it was suspending an agreement between the
U.S. and Russia that prevents inadvertent direct conflict between the two countries as they operate in Syria. Russian sources told the Tass News agency that the frigate Admiral Grigorovich would enter the Mediterranean on Friday, adding that the cruise-missile capable ship was bound for the Russian logistics base at Tartus on Syria’s coast. For now, the Trump administration’s hopes of working with Russia look to be in vain.
Trial by Reality
Thursday’s strike was the first time the U.S. has struck Syrian government forces directly. The escalation of U.S. intervention in Syria carries risks. It is a multi-dimensional conflict of shifting alliances and great power chess games. Dozens of rebel groups, foreign powers, and terrorist factions, each with their own interests, are fighting on different sides. Separating the good guys and bad guys is maddeningly difficult, made more so by their tendency to change with the situation on the ground.
Before taking office, President Trump was an ardent opponent of any intervention in Syria. He frequently attacked President Obama for involving the U.S. in the conflict. Trump’s shift in stance is the result of a trial by reality that every new President experiences to at least some extent. Problems that seemed from the outside to have simple answers look far less simple from the Oval Office. Decisions must be balanced not only in terms of the consequences of action, but the consequences of inaction as well. Assad’s calculation that there would be no U.S. response from attacking Khan Sheikhoun with Sarin nerve gas resulted in the deaths of scores of women and children. As the gravity of the office settles on him, President Trump is realizing that being President isn’t as easy as it looked.