The U.S., France and Great Britain have carried out an appropriately limited but symbolically meaningful strike in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces against the citizens of Douma.
Even in a conflict already as debased as Syria’s vicious civil war, there must be international norms and laws that civilized nations enforce. The use of chemical weapons is an unacceptable infraction. And despite inconsistencies in the U.S. approach to the conflict, President Donald Trump made the correct call in carefully targeting Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities with the missile strikes before dawn Saturday near Damascus and Homs.
Later, Trump tweeted: “Mission Accomplished.” Besides that being an unfortunate echo of former President George W. Bush’s premature victory declaration during the Iraq war, it’s unclear how much the U.S. has accomplished. A similar strike for similar purposes at a similar time last year didn’t deter Syrian President Bashar Assad from repeatedly and illegally using the banned weapons.
While acknowledging that Assad may retain some chemical weapons capabilities, the Pentagon proclaimed that the action struck at “the heart” of Assad’s program. But it likely won’t change Assad’s heart, and the homicidal leader will likely continue using barrel bombs, torture chambers and other brutal methods that a feckless Western response and immoral backing from Russia and Iran have made possible. Assad is indeed a “monster,” as Trump described him during his address to the nation on Friday night.
Those comments were more measured than the taunting tweets about potential missile strikes Trump sent early in the week, which were the antithesis of how a president should proceed when considering use of force.
Fortunately, however, Trump did appear to carefully and smartly avoid attacking Russian forces on the ground in Syria. And despite bluster about international law at the United Nations (an obscene observation, given the Kremlin’s craven embrace of Assad, who should be prosecuted for war crimes), it appears that the two nuclear-armed superpowers will avoid any direct military confrontation. Thankfully all U.S. troops involved in the operation appeared to have come through it without casualties.
Twitter bluster aside, it’s important to identify what this attack represented — and what it did not.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said. “It is not about regime change.”
It was, instead, about the use of chemical weapons, May said. “This persistent pattern of behavior must be stopped — not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons, but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons.”
Avoiding further erosion of these norms is in the national interest of the United States. Congress shouldn’t be a bystander, but front and center in the debate, not just issuing statements after the fact. And while the perspectives on striking Syria may eventually take on a partisan tone, Republicans and Democrats alike should unite in not ceding their constitutional prerogative, and responsibility, to authorize the use of force.
In the wake of Friday’s strikes, Congress should engage in a vigorous examination of Trump’s overall Syrian policy. After all, the strikes came just days after Trump openly expressed a desire to draw down already limited troop levels in Syria. Such inconsistencies send dangerously confusing signals to allies and adversaries alike.
It’s understandable that there are suggestions the strike was a diversion from Trump’s mounting political and legal problems stemming from multiple investigations. But that is to trivialize Assad’s offense and suggest that the U.S. commander in chief can’t or shouldn’t act because he’s besieged.
Instead, the opposite is true. Despite deep divisions in America, the U.S. government can still rally allies to do what’s right. That should send an unmistakable message to Assad, as well as to the enabling nations of Russia and Iran and regimes in North Korea, China and elsewhere that may be considering a test of Western resolve.