Trump Shoots, the Rest of Us Ask Questions

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by Derek Davison

Late Friday evening in Washington (Saturday morning in Syria), U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States, Great Britain, and France had launched joint airstrikes in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma on April 7. In doing so, he capped a frenetic week of debates at the United Nations Security Council and discussion in capitals across Europe and the Middle East: Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Tehran, and of course Damascus. But basic questions about these strikes have gone unanswered—indeed, some of them could not possibly have been answered in the six days between the alleged chemical weapons attack and the joint airstrikes. Nevertheless, they still need to be answered. Here are a few of the most important:

What happened to the investigation?

Amid the rush to do something, a tendency that CATO’s Emma Ashford ably picked apart— ironically on the day the strikes were conducted—in the New York Times, one fundamental question seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle: what actually happened in Douma on April 7?  In the immediate aftermath of the alleged attack, initial reports asserted that dozens of people had been killed and hundreds rushed to medical facilities exhibiting symptoms of chemical exposure. Both the Russian and Syrian governments rejected those reports as hoaxes. One week later, they continue to insist that they did not carry out a chemical attack in Douma on April 7.

The preponderance of evidence would suggest otherwise. We know that Bashar al-Assad at one time had a chemical weapons program that included both nerve agents (like sarin gas) and choking agents (like chlorine). He ostensibly destroyed these weapons—or at least his nerve agents—in 2013, after another alleged chemical weapons attack in Ghouta killed more than 1400 people and almost drew a military response from then-U.S. President Barack Obama. But there have been multiple allegations since then of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, occasionally sarin but more often chlorine. Assad’s forces, for example, are strongly suspected of having used sarin against the town of Khan Shaykhun in April 2017, an incident that provoked a U.S. missile attack against Syria’s Shayrat air base a few days later.

Witnesses, video evidence, and international observers all seem to agree that chemical weapons were used in Douma on April 7, and there is some intelligence that points to the Syrian military having been the culprit. Meanwhile, despite repeated claims that the incident was staged, neither the Russians nor the Syrians have produced any evidence of what surely would have been a complex fabrication.

All that said, where the use of military force is concerned, the burden of proof should be greater than a “preponderance of evidence.” A detailed, thorough investigation of the incident should be the prerequisite for doling out military justice, and yet the Trump administration opted to conduct these airstrikes the day before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) investigation was set to begin (that investigation began Sunday, presumably having been delayed by the military operation). Absent that investigation, there’s no way to establish exactly what happened on April 7. We can’t know if chemical weapons were used, nor can we know which chemicals were used. The latter question goes to the nature of the U.S. “red line” on chemical weapons use, which previously seemed to apply only to the use of nerve agents but which Trump may now have reset to also include chlorine.

What would have been the harm of at least allowing the OPCW (which admittedly cannot by its own rules assign responsibility for a chemical weapons attack) to conduct its investigation? It’s not as if there was a great urgency to carry out these strikes. Supporters may cite fears that Assad could have removed assets or otherwise taken steps to mitigate the impact of the strikes, but Trump himself announced that U.S. missiles were on the way via Twitter on April 11. Assad had already had plenty of time to prepare for the attack. And while the Pentagon produced its own “large body” of evidence supporting the case that Assad did use chemical weapons against Douma, its post facto justification shouldn’t be accepted as an appropriate substitute for a full, independent investigation.

What is the real scope of the strike, and who is in charge in Washington?

In his address announcing the strikes, Trump said that “we are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” Leaving aside the fact that we still don’t know for certain if the “Syrian regime” actually did use chemical agents on April 7, this suggests an open-ended intervention. In a press briefing at the Pentagon shortly after Trump’s address, however, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis described the strikes as a “one-time shot” at the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capabilities. So…which is it? Were these strikes the first of many in a long-term operation or a one-and-done warning to Assad?

The Trump administration has tried to square these two seemingly contradictory remarks by saying, in effect, that both are true. The idea is that this is a one-off strike provided Assad does not use chemical weapons again (here again we have to leave aside the fact that there’s been no formal investigation into whether he actually used them on April 7), and that the United States is ready to do more if he does. But there are ominous considerations here that were revealed by The Wall Street Journal just before the U.S. and allied strikes were carried out.

According to the WSJ, Trump had spent the week following the April 7 incident “prodding his military advisers to agree to a more sweeping retaliatory strike in Syria than they consider prudent.” This course of action was supported by his new national security advisor, the ultra-hawkish John Bolton, but was opposed by Mattis due to concerns over possible Iranian and Russian retaliation. For now, at least, it seems as though Mattis won the argument, and thankfully this operation—which was about twice as large as last year’s U.S. strike against Shayrat but still relatively limited—is unlikely to drastically raise tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Indeed, Moscow seems to have taken it entirely in stride. But if the famously impulsive Trump is truly interested in a bigger response—and is being advised in that direction by Bolton—then he may decide to strike at Assad again, despite the risk of escalation.

Was the mission really accomplished?

On Saturday morning, Trump hailed the airstrikes in—what else?—a tweet that ended with the sentence “Mission Accomplished!” Setting aside the uncomfortable undertones that statement contains, it’s fair to ask whether the mission really was accomplished. Satellite evidence leaves little doubt that the strikes did substantial damage, contrary to Russian and Syrian claims that Syrian air defenses shot down the vast majority of the missiles the Western forces fired. But at this point we only have the Pentagon’s assurances that the buildings that were struck really were crucial to Syria’s chemical weapons program, and we’ve heard very little about casualties (the Pentagon says that “as of now” it has no knowledge of any civilian casualties). In fact, it’s fair to ask what the “mission” was in the first place, given that the Trump administration—like the Obama administration before it—hasn’t exhibited any sign of a strategy or coherent approach toward the Syrian civil war.  These airstrikes were presumably conducted in the service of a larger goal, but does Washington have one beyond dissuading Assad from using chemical weapons?

Obviously, there was no intention to remove Bashar al-Assad from power or even significantly impair his military capabilities. The target package—a research center in Damascus and two chemical weapons-related facilities west of Homs—was far too narrow for that. The strikes also weren’t intended to degrade Assad’s ability to deliver chemical weapons, should he choose to do so, since they didn’t target any of Syria’s air assets. Nor do the strikes seem to have been meant to protect Syrian civilians—despite the protection of civilians having become a near-constant refrain from the administration over the past several days—except narrowly from one specific class of weapon. The Syrian military can still use conventional weapons, which have been responsible for the vast majority of the civilian casualties inflicted over the course of the civil war. And the logic of “protecting” the people of a country by bombing that country is questionable at best. Besides, any talk of protecting Syrian civilians rings incredibly hollow coming from an administration that has accepted all of 11 Syrian refugees into the United States so far this year.

According to the Pentagon, the goal seems to have been to take apart Syria’s chemical weapons program itself. U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters Saturday that the operation had struck “a severe blow” against that program, possibly setting it back years. But is that a realistic assessment? Producing sarin gas isn’t particularly challenging and doesn’t require large facilities. Chlorine, meanwhile, isn’t even banned under international laws regarding chemical weapons because of its widespread civilian uses. So it’s unlikely that these strikes could have done much to prevent Assad from producing, acquiring, or using chemical weapons. Ultimately, the question of whether or not this particular mission was accomplished comes down to whether it will deter him from doing so.

Were these strikes legal, or at least justifiable?

In fairness, the international community does recognize chemical weapons as more heinous than conventional weapons, hence the existence of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans their use and mandates their destruction. That said, is there a legal basis for this attack? The simple answer is “no,” and in fact the administration doesn’t even seem to be trying very hard to come up with one.

In terms of domestic U.S. law, there is nothing in either the 2001 or 2002 Authorizations to Use Military Force (which permitted the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq, respectively) that gives the U.S. government the authority to attack the Syrian government. Instead, the administration seems to be resting on a disturbingly expansive definition of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, one that would simply allow the president to use force at his or her discretion. But Congress holds the power to declare war, and, in the absence of a congressional vote to authorize this operation, its legality is questionable at best. While it may seem like nitpicking to insist on a congressional vote in these situations, particularly in a case like this when the vote would almost certainly have been to authorize the attack, the importance of Congress reasserting its constitutional authority to check the president’s power to carry out military operations cannot be overstated.

What about international law? The strike was undertaken without authorization by the UN Security Council and in specific contravention of the enforcement mechanism outlined by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which mandates an OPCW investigation before retaliation can be considered. Some have cited the fact that three permanent members of the Security Council participated in the strike as somehow proof of its legality, but this is an entirely invented criterion that subverts the purpose of the UNSC and its veto system.

If the strike wasn’t legal, was it at least justifiable? The fact that Russia would have reflexively vetoed any action against Syria regardless of the evidence is certainly frustrating and reflects a fundamental problem with the way the UNSC is designed. In his address, Trump spoke at some length about the need “to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons.” But if deterring the use of chemical weapons is an international norm worth upholding, surely so is the principle that one nation, or group of nations, cannot simply bomb another because it feels like the right thing to do. You cannot uphold international law and norms by violating them in other ways.

Was Trump “wagging the dog”?

Others have already begun to address the question of whether Trump was motivated to conduct this operation in order to divert public attention to his mounting political scandals. Obviously, no one but maybe Trump himself can definitely speak to his motives. But there are certainly reasons to be concerned about Trump’s current frame of mind and how that might affect his decision-making.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

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2 Comments

  1. So, John Bolton was trying to create further chaos in Syria, using US military power. What a surprise. We bear in mind Bolton still argues the idiotic and illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good thing.

  2. When we have problem to frankly admit something, it doesn’t means that it is non-existent! No Coherent US strategy in Syria?
    How could US sell her strategy of practically helping the Jihadists by all means?

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