By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Tomahawk missile launch off U.S. ship, courtesy of the Pentagon
April 6, 2017 (Washington D.C.)— The U.S. today launched over 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Al-Shayrat Air Base in Syria, on orders of President Donald Trump. The base is believed to be where a chemical nerve gas weapons attack was launched on April 4th by Bashar al-Assad’s regime that killed scores of civilians, including possibly hundreds, including many children in Idlib.
Key political leaders on both sides of the aisle voiced support for the action, though even some supporters argue that the Constitution requires a declaration of war by Congress to take such action. Others voice concerns over a unilateral action that Assad could view as an act of war. Now prominent Senators and Representatives in both parties are calling for Congress to reconvene and debate whether to declare war on the Syrian government, at a time when the U.S. is already waging war against ISIS. Assad has also fought ISIS even as his country has been split by six years of civil war.
Also a wild card is how the Russians will react to the escalation, since the Russians are allied with the U.S. in fighting ISIS, but Russia has also worked to keep Assad in power. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, has said Russia was given advance notice of the strike. Russia has personnel at the base targeted but Capt. Davis indicated care was taken to avoid striking Russians or civilians.
The missiles were launched off U.S. Navy ships, the USS Ross and USS Porter, instead of from airplanes to avoid Syrian and Russian anti-aircraft defense systems. The Pentagon has stated that initial indications show the strike “several damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure.”
Trump hardens position toward Syria
President Trump denounced Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the strongest possible terms. “Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians,” Trump said in a televised address to the nation. “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Trump called the strike vital to U.S. national security and called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.” He asked for “God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world,” adding, “We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed, and we hope that as long as America stands for justice then peace and harmony will in the end prevail..”
Just days ago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said removing Assad was not realistic. But now Trump says his views toward Assad have changed in light of the chemical weapons attack, a clear violation of international law. The Trump administration is now signaling it would back regime change, but has not stated how it would accomplish this.
Tillerson faults Russia
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement harshly critical of Russia, recalling a 2013 agreement requiring Syria to turn over its stockpile of chemical weapons and for Russia to monitor and assure that Assad did not renege. “Clearly,” Tillerson stated, “Russia has failed in its responsibility on that commitment. Either Russia has been complicit or has been incompetent on its ability to deliver.”
The statement was surprisingly direct given Trump’s repeated praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and the numerous controversies over his inner circle’s close ties to Russia, perhaps signaling a break in cozy relations with Putin.
Historical perspective and complexities in the region
Trump himself often criticized Obama for considering military action against the Syrian regime. In 2013 he tweeted, "The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!"
Just days before the November 2016 election, Trump accused Obama of wanting to "start a shooting war in Syria in conflict with a nuclear armed Russia that could very well lead to World War III," the Washington Post reports.
Trump’s order to bomb the Syrian air force base also marks a departure from former President Barack Obama’s policies. The Obama administration had readied plans to attack the Syrian government after an earlier chemical attack on the Syrian people, but backed down when the U.S. began its military operations against ISIS in Syria. Those plans helped to enable today’s rapid response, however.
The Obama administration did support rebel groups that tried unsuccessfully to oust Assad. Critics including some military leaders have faulted Obama for not taking stronger action against Assad. Retired General John Allen, who coordinated military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria under Obama, called Obama’s decision not to strike in 2013 “devastating” since now Russian troops are intermingled with Syrian forces and any strike on a Syrian military target could kill Russians, potentially sparking hostilities with Russia.
However, the reason why Obama did not attack Assad's government is reportedly because he wanted Congress to approve it, but Congress refused to back a war resolution. It is unclear whether Congress might back such a resolution now or not.
Today’s military intervention could be viewed as an act of war by Assad and could trigger Assad to strike back at coalition planes, putting lives of Americans and our allies at risk. Previously, strikes inside Syria since the civil war began targeted ISIS, not the Syrian government.
A key problem not resolved is who would take Assad’s place should he be killed or deposed; one fear is that ISIS could step in to fill that void. The situation on the ground in Syria is highly complex, with Assad’s forces, U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, ISIS militants, Kurdish fighters, and foreign forces from Russia, Iran, Turkey and other nations.
The military intervention comes at a time when Trump has cut in half the number of Syrian refugees authorized by the Obama administration for admission into the U.S., leaving civilians in Syria bombarbed by not only Assad's chemical and conventional weapon assaults, but also bombings by Russia and the U.S. targeting ISIS but sometimes striking civilian sites. Nearly all hospitals in the region have been decimated, leaving inadequate manpower and equipment to care for the massive number of wounded, increasing the grim toll.
In attacking ISIS, both Obama and Trump have argued that this was allowed under a 2001 Congressional war authorization to attack al-Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. The presidents have claimed that the terror group ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, though many analysts have questioned that assumption.
Attacking the Syrian government directly, however, clearly does not fall under the 9/11 war authorization.
Trump’s retaliatory strike against Assad’s air base was praised by Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, who issued a joint statement that the action “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.” They also called on the administration to take out Assad’s air force and implement a comprehensive strategy in coordination with U.S. allies and partners to “end the conflict in Syria.”
Former Democratic presidential candidate and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech in New York this morning, also advocated taking out Syrian military airfields.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has also voiced support for the attacks, calling them “appropriate and just.”
But others voiced grave concerns about the President waging war without consent of Congress, as the Constitution requires.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, while acknowledging Assad is a “brutal dictator who must be held accountable” also said that Trump launched a military strike against Syria “without a vote of Congress. The Constitution says war must be declared by Congress.”
Kentucky Republican Rand Paul tweeted , “While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked. The President needs Congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution.”
Rep. Justin Arnash, a Republican from Michigan and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, agreed. “Airstrikes are an act of war. Atrocities in Syria cannot justify departure from Constitution, which vests in Congress power to commence war,” he wrote, adding that the framers of the Cosntitution divided war powers to prevent abuse, empowering “Congress to declare war and the president to conduct war and repel sudden attacks.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the highest ranking Democrat on the House intelligence panel, stated, “Congerss cannot abdicate its responsibility any longer and should vote on any use of force not made in self defense. This is necessary whether action is taken against terrorist groups or, as here, against regime capabilities.”
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, called on Congress to end its two week break and return to the Capitol, CNN reports. “This is an act of war,” she said of today’s missile strikes. “Congress needs to come back into session and hold a debate. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibility.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, praised the professionalism of our armed forces and called it the “right thing to do” to assure that Assad knows he will pay a price for committing “despicable atrocities.” But Schumer concluded, “It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a strategy and consult with Congress before implementing it.”
After six years of civil war as well as attacks on ISIS inside Syria, at least a half million Syrians have been killed and millions have been displaced, refugees fleeing their homeland.
Still, not everyone supports military conflict to resolve the crisis. Diane Randall, Executive Director of the pacificist Quaker Church Friends' Committee on Legislation, states, "The only path toward shared security requires robust diplomacy, urgent humanitarian aid, and a comprehensive strategy to bring the crisis to an end through a political solution -- not escalating war."