Trump, Syria and Distraction
Last night, Thursday 6 April, Trump flip-flopped on a major campaign plank and intervened directly in the Syrian civil-war quagmire by ordering a missile strike on the air base understood to be the launch point of the Syrian air force’s chemical weapon strike against its own civilian population earlier this week. While ostensibly reacting to the most recent atrocity and war crime of Assad’s regime, I think there are good reasons to be sceptical about the purpose and ongoing commitment of Trump’s apparent turn of heart. There is also reason to be extremely anxious about this impetuous and instinctual use of American military might by Trump. In several ways, this action – even though it is directed at a murderous, criminal regime fully deserving of punitive treatment – confirms some of the worst fears expressed before the election about handing to a man like Trump the keys to the world’s most powerful arsenal.
It should also be pointed-out upfront that what Trump did yesterday contravened both international law and the US constitution. Regardless of what we think of Assad’s regime in Syria, Trump directly attacked the military assets of another sovereign state without seeking authorization from the United Nations, nor pre-acquiring congressional approval. Absent a sudden attack on the US that requires immediate action to repel the attack, no president has the power under the Constitution to decide unilaterally to take the United States into war. Now, no doubt the Trump White House will claim this was not a declaration of war and, as I shall argue below, its highly unlikely that the US military is at all interested in escalating US intervention in Syria. But the fact is Trump unilaterally launched missile strikes against a country that had not declared war or launched an attack on the USA. That is an act of war. Doing so without Congressional sanction violates one of the fundamental principles embedded in the US Constitution, for in that document the power to declare war, specifying enemies, defining military objectives actually rests with Congress. As the American Civil Liberties Union noted:
"after the U.S. government used military force against the Syrian government for the first time since the civil war broke out in 2011, the Trump administration claimed, “No authorization from Congress is necessary.” It pointed to “several factors, including promoting regional stability, discouraging the use of chemical weapons, and protecting a civilian population from humanitarian atrocities.” Those arguments do not provide justification for the president to do an end run around the Constitution. As an initial matter, the hypocrisy of this rationale is galling. President Trump is invoking the Syrian government’s killing of helpless men, women, and children — beautiful babies, as he says — when his own Muslim travel ban would exclude those very people from the refuge of the United States".
Of course, previous US presidents have ordered military operations without congressional approval before. Indeed, Trump appears to be basing his own justification on the fact that Obama’s administration struck Libya in 2011 lacking prior Congressional approval. That Obama’s strikes were illegal and much criticized as such at the time, clearly does not justify using them as precedent now. Unilateral military action was against the US Constitution when Obama did it, and so it is now. Moreover, stung by that criticism (and seeking political cover), Obama later made a point of consulting Congress first when considering a strike on Syria in 2013.
Furthermore, under the UN Charter, the US is prohibited from using force in Syria unless authorized by the Security Council or exercising its right to individual or collective self-defense [see UN Charter Article 2(4)] – which clearly do not pertain in this case. The US Government has also never recognized a right of humanitarian intervention under international law, while China and Russia have consistently blocked Security Council resolutions authorizing the use of force against Assad’s regime and its many atrocities. So Trump’s strikes contravene a binding treaty obligation for the United States. And the justification offered by the US Ambassador to the UN is that the US was forced to break international law in order to enforce international law. Which is simply ridiculous. If you are interested in the details of the illegalities of the Syrian strike, the national security site, Lawfare, has an excellent discussion.
Now, no doubt Trump’s administration cares not a whit about the niceties of the UN: indeed, he has railed against the UN for years. In that sense, this unilateral action fits with Trump’s view of the world in which America is “first” and ought to throw its weight around without the constraints of any irksome multilateral agreements. But in another sense this action is entirely inconsistent with the worldview Trump publicly asserted through the presidential campaign and in the first 70 days or so of the administration.
Just three days before these missile strikes, Trump’s administration seemed to signal that Assad could do pretty much whatever he liked. Indeed, for years Trump made it clear that he wanted the US to stay out of Syria. When chemical weapons were used in August 2013, killing an estimated 1,300 people in Ghouta, Trump was adamant: “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long-term conflict?” And in September 2013, also on Twitter: “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” As presidential candidate, Trump said that regime change was not as urgent a priority for the United States as vanquishing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And he criticized Obama and Hillary Clinton for plunging heedlessly into foreign entanglements by misplaced idealism and for the substitution of other nations’ interests for America’s. When he came into office, Trump signalled he wanted to work with Russia in Syria against the Islamic State which implicitly meant that Russia’s ally, Assad, would stay in power. So last night’s missile strike is rather a startling departure. It would be foolish to suggest that it means Trump was now committed to an anti-Assad strategy, mostly because its pretty clear there isn’t any kind of strategy worked out yet.
Some of Trump’s allies, such as Brexit champion Nigel Farage, Anne Coulter and the American neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, have already tweeted their disapproval. What happened to the true isolationist they thought they had helped gain the Oval Office? One can only imagine the anger that Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon must now be venting: his very recent removal from the National Security Council principals committee now seems even more significant. But perhaps not…(more on that in a future post).
It may well be that Trump suddenly discovered he has compassion now that he finds himself in the White House. He seems to have reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria. “I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that,” the president said of Syria on Wednesday. “It is now my responsibility.” One wonders, however, why the former use of chemical weapons, and the slaughter of nearly 500,000 people in Syria’s civil war did nothing to move his conscience before. Trump’s expression of sentiment, no matter how genuine it was in the moment, still seems pretty hollow given that Trump’s response was to bomb a runway for all those beautiful babies, now dead; meanwhile refugees from Syria are still banned from the USA, including every “child of God” traumatised by Assad’s barrel bombs and Sarin gas.
Nor should we think that this about-face is quite as complete as the White House would have us believe. Firing dozens of cruise missiles into Syria deflects attention from Trump’s lengthening list of troubles at home. Think about how convenient it is for Trump – for weeks trying to distract the American public from accusations that he is in fact Vladimir Putin’s useful idiot – that he now stands up to him in Syria. How neatly this washes away (at least for now) all those allegations of secret links and election hacking. While the actions taken by Trump are in the longer term very risky/dangerous, its hard to understate the short-term domestic upsides for Trump of his actions yesterday.
Before we get to those, however, no doubt Trump will, first of all, revel in the inevitable comparisons with his predecessor. In 2013, Obama hesitated and eventually backed down on his “red line” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Again, Trump was among those urging Obama to do nothing, insisting that Obama needed congressional approval. But that will be forgotten now, as Trump relishes a comparison that, at least in his view, makes him look more decisive, more of a “leader” and even more humane than Obama. This will help Trump with the hawks in the Republican Party and probably with the mass of the Republican base. Even some Democrats are publicly commending Trump’s actions.
Of course, as the New Statesman argues, the situation in Syria today is not what it was in the summer of 2013:
“Iran and Russia have stabilised the situation in favour of Assad.... In an alarmingly successful sleight of hand, the nightmare that Assad and his apologists have consistently conjured and consistently sought to procure – an armed opposition dominated by a handful of powerful and savage jihadi groups – has come to pass. Back in 2013, a sustained campaign of targeted strikes against the air bases and air assets being used by the Assad regime to terrorise and kill civilians probably would have helped stop that killing. It probably would have weakened the ability of Damascus and its Iranian allies to contain and then defeat the opposition in a number of key areas. It would not have led to victory for the latter: they were too fragmented and it would hardly have been desirable anyway, given the nature of some of the groups involved. But it could have prepared the way for a US-shaped and Gulf Cooperation Council-backed initiative to achieve a settlement.”
That opportunity, if it actually existed, is long gone. What will Trump’s limited intervention accomplish now?
If the strike does achieve Trump’s stated objective and Assad no longer uses chemical weapons against his own people, obviously that’s good news, but it is no consolation for the thousands of Syrians who are likely to die in the coming months from the regime’s barrel bombs or indiscriminate Russian airstrikes or to be tortured and killed in the dictator’s prisons. Nor have one-off attacks like this one have a good track record, even when they signal a shift in US policy. If it is an one-off strike, it really is just “symbolic” and a demonstration of weakness, not resolve – no matter what Trump thinks. Historically, those on the receiving end of such strikes suffer little and spin the event for their own benefit: they survived a US attack and boast about their defiance. For instance, in 1998, after Al Qaeda bombed two US embassies in Africa, the United States launched Operation Infinite Reach and sent cruise missiles against facilities believed to be linked to terrorists in Afghanistan and Sudan. Those strikes backfired, allowing Bin Laden to claim he was standing up to the United States and more recruitment followed.
If a more sustained bombing campaign follows the cruise missile strikes, it might affect Assad’s calculations more profoundly, but air power alone has many limits, and it seems unlikely that the Trump administration has any kind of plan for the future. The suddenness of the turn in Trump’s policy suggests that the use of force is the political strategy rather than serving it: it is entirely unclear what political settlement the United States wants in Syria and which actors Washington wants to empower. Even if Trump wants to confront Putin over Syria, such an escalation demands careful preparation and coordination. So, Trump, his supporters and some in Congress might “feel good” about hitting back at a murderous dictator, but this strike by itself advances no American goals.
And all of that has to be weighed against what else the missile strike tells us about Trump. Right off it confirms that Trump’s proposed budget request for an increase in military spending means that Trump’s approach to global problems is war and more war; and terrifyingly, he thinks he can do this without legislative oversight. It also points to two other equally unpalatable possibilities.
At best it confirms that Trump’s volatility and unreliability. The case against Assad being a part of the solution in Syria remains unchanged since last year's presidential race. Then Trump ran on a platform of doing a deal with Assad. This week Trump changed his tune. What changed this week is that Trump saw something he didn't like on TV: what will he see next, on Fox perhaps, that makes him change course again? Why anyone thought Trump would have a consistent foreign policy is a mystery, since as with everything else, Trump has a series of wildly contradictory impulses that can vary from day to day. Trump see this unpredictability as an asset, no doubt he thinks he will be feared. But in fact such inconsistentency is profoundly dangerous, as this just sends the message that none of his international commitments, no matter how frequently stated, should be taken seriously — and encourages actors on all sides to seek ways to manipulate him in their direction. Sharp and unexpected turns in policy also raises the frightful possibility of this impulsive and hot-headed president having access to the nuclear codes – as Clinton famously worried during the election campaign. That’s a terrifying “at best scenario”.
But worse, it may confirm that Trump will use military force, with all the dangers inherent in doing so, for a purely domestic and personal advantage. Essentially, it signals that Trump prioritizes domestic politics in foreign relations. For instance, this strike will help Trump appear less acquiescent to Putin at a moment when Trump’s team is under investigation for alleged Russian support during the election. And it has infuriated the nationalist, isolationist and self-proclaimed anti-globalist branches of his movement – including Bannon and libertarian-minded Congress members such as Rand Paul. By distancing himself, possibly only temporarily from these hard-right nationalists, Trump might think to regain wavering support from the more moderate majority of Republicans. But there is no reason to believe he won't try to turn back to the hard right once the domestic circumstances dictate it as politically expedient. And consider Trump’s tweet from September 2012: “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in a tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”
But Trump’s actions work for Russia too. Condemnations have come from Moscow, but the US seems to have given Russia sufficient warning to ensure their forces weren’t hit, and Russia did nothing to hit back. Indeed, from the Russian point of view things so far have worked out very nicely. After all, Russian meddling in the Middle East (a US sphere of special interest) was the Kremlin’s way of deflecting Western attention from its own special quagmire in its own sphere of interest: Ukraine. Putin has rightly calculated that the US would prioritize Syria at the expense of Ukraine, and perhaps would eventually compromise on issues like Crimea and sanctions imposed on Russia if the Islamic State were brought to heal. By deciding to withdraw from the air safety agreement with the US over Syria because of the American missile strike, Moscow is raising the stakes in future bargaining with the US, albeit by putting its own troops at greater risk. But dragging the US into another conflict in the Middle East would be a good outcome for the Kremlin. Trump being paraded as Russia’s friend was deeply awkward for the Kremlin. Putin’s regime is quite dependent on the US being openly hostile to it. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Putin’s approval rating soared from 60% to almost 90%, but support has started to evaporate since. In recent weeks, Russians have visibly warmed to the idea of street protests and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On the eve of presidential elections in 2018, this could be a problem for the Kremlin. A showy conflict over Syria could be the ideal way to shore up domestic support: after all, brinkmanship is where Putin has always excelled. Putin actually benefits when he has an enemy in the White House; and who better than a cartoonish one that, for Russians, matches all of the exaggerated clichés of the American establishment. While Obama refused to play the role Putin wanted, Trump is looking to become an ideal “frenemy”. Whether Trump understands how Putin can and will use this turn of events is an open question.
Trump’s intervention in Syria will also shape the meeting next week between Secretary of State Tillerson and Putin: the first face-to-face encounter between the Russian leader and a member of the Trump administration – at least that we know about. Before the strike on Thursday night, the meeting was likely to be dominated by the investigation into Russia’s cyberattacks and the interference in the presidential election on Mr. Trump’s behalf. But Syria’s use of chemical weapons now gives the Trump administration an opportunity to demand that Mr. Putin either contain or remove Syria’s leader, or else Mr. Trump will expand the limited American military action.
More welcome distraction for both leaders.