Considered and measured - two words one is unlikely to immediately associate with Donald Trump’s presidency, but that’s exactly what US air strikes on a Syrian regime air base early this morning were.
The chemical attacks on Tuesday in Khan Sheikhoun were not the first time such weapons were used in the conflict, nor will they likely be the last. The 2013 attack in Ghoutta forced Barack Obama into a humiliating climbdown after his “red line” which he was unwilling to enforce, having tried and failed to get congressional approval.
Between them, Obama and the United Nations failed repeatedly to stop Assad’s daily slaughter of the Syrian people. In breaking the tragic cycle of atrocities followed by empty rhetoric, Trump, the most unlikely of candidates, has stepped into that void of leadership.
Allowing Tuesday’s attack to go unpunished would have condemned Syria to many more years of war, and while these strikes alone will not end the conflict, they offer hope that the international community, with the leadership of the United States, might just act to stop the slaughter.
Trump must not let off, this mustn’t be an isolated incident and international norms must be continually enforced in Syria, with or without the United Nation’s blessing. A no-fly-zone above Syria would do a substantial amount to protect civilians inside the country, and as social media has already suggested, it would likely gain popular support from Syrians living in opposition territories.
Those who have fled the country report to NGO’s that it is the Syrian and Russian air forces' indiscriminate bombing that is the most important factor in forcing them to flee – not Isis. Putting an end to it could open the door to some of these people returning to their homes in opposition held Syria.
The US needn’t act unilaterally either, a coalition of both Western and regional allies is already presenting itself. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France and Japan were all quick to voice support for the strikes, with France going further by announcing they will attempt to get the political process back on track, something which becomes a far more worthwhile endeavour with a real threat posed to Assad. When it comes to Syria, rhetoric is cheap and talks involving Assad without the threat of military action are little more than self-righteous platitudes.
Accusations of recklessness on Trump’s part show a complete lack of familiarity with his administration. Two of his closest Middle East advisors Derek Harvey and Joel Rayburn are former military intelligence officers who served in Iraq. They both hold a sincere appreciation for the region, and on top of that a specialist understanding that is often absent when it comes to political advisors.
While Secretary of Defence James Mattis and NSA advisor HR McMaster both know the cost of being too hawkish, they are willing to take action when the most fundamental of international norms are threatened. Of this morning’s airstrike, McMaster claimed that efforts were made to ensure Russian personnel were not caught up in the attack, an indication that they were aware of the potential for escalation with Russia and took precautions against it. The suggestion that these advisers might stand by while Trump wades blindly into a third world war are laughable to anyone familiar with the individuals involved in these policy areas.
The same can’t be said for Obama, under whose tenure separate CIA and Pentagon efforts to train elements of the Syrian opposition appeared completely uncoordinated, and ended farcically.
Friday morning’s strikes appear to have already disproved some of the arguments against intervention in 2013. A third world war is yet to begin and Russian air defences were either unable or unwilling to prevent the missiles hitting their target. They demonstrate that the Assad regime can be punished in isolation.
I despaired at Trump’s election, his demagoguery seemed to run counter to every value I might claim to hold, but when it comes to striking Assad, he has demonstrated understanding that the dictator is the root cause of the conflict in Syria, and he has demonstrated willingness to act against this root cause – two things his predecessor failed miserably in doing. Condemnations and speeches at the Security Council will not save Syrian lives – this has been proved over the past six years – but international action might.
Trump’s response to Tuesday’s attacks can start a new chapter for international diplomacy in the 21st century, one in which international norms are respected and enforced. Even the most vehement opponents of President Trump must swallow their pride and acknowledge that early Friday morning, he hit the right targets.