“Something should happen.”
That’s what Donald Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One today, in response to a suspected chemical attack Tuesday morning by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on a rebel-held town. Just a few hours later, something is happening, with the United States having launched at least 50 cruise missiles at the Ash Sha’irat airfield in Syria, where the suspected chemical attack is believed to have originated from.
In 2011, as part of the wider Arab Spring movement, Syrians gathered to protest against economic problems and restrictive laws. The Syrian government’s response was a brutal repression that killed hundreds and imprisoned thousands. Military defectors formed the Free Syrian Army that summer, and Syria slid into a civil war.
The ongoing results of that civil war have been catastrophic—the deadliest war of the 21st century. As of a year ago, the UN’s special envoy to Syria estimated that 400,000 had been killed. Around five million Syrians have fled the country—and millions more are displaced within it—spurring a refugee crisis in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and across Europe.
Roughly, the government and government forces control major cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama in the western part of the country, and recently regained control of Aleppo, the hardest hit city in the war. Rebel forces hold swaths of territory in the northwest and southwest of the country, while Kurdish forces have moved into the northeast, ISIS is barely holding on to Raqqa, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—which was formerly associated with al-Qaeda, is poking around too.
It is highly, highly complicated.
What is even more complicated is that various other powers—Russia and the United States, but also Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Gulf states—are fighting a proxy battle inside of Syria. Generally, Russia and Iran are backing Assad’s government, the United States is uncomfortably supporting both the rebels and the Kurds, Turkey is supporting the rebels and is opposed to the Kurds, and Gulf states are supporting the rebels. Another way to think of it is that Sunnis are generally supporting the rebels, and Shiites are generally supporting Assad. Nobody likes ISIS, though Assad isn’t above pointing them in the rebels’ direction.
In Sept. 2013, U.S. officials said that Assad killed 1,400 with chemical weapons. Then-president Barack Obama went on national television and threatened to respond with a “targeted military strike.” Russia proposed instead that the Syrian government surrender its chemical weapons; by the next year it had surrendered 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, avoiding retaliatory air strikes.
Here’s what then-private citizen Donald Trump thought about air strikes:
You don’t have to dig very hard to find numerous American politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, who have changed their position on airstrikes in Syria from 2013 to today. One wonders what made them change their minds.
While the United States was involved in Syria at this point, it was mostly a smaller-scale intervention, involving a CIA training program and the selling of weapons. But when the brutal ISIS stepped into the vacuum and seized territory in Iraq and Syria, the United States was drawn more fully into the war, with air strikes and additional training directed toward the contradictory goals of defeating both ISIS and Assad’s government. For its part, the Russian government has ostensibly bombed ISIS, but mostly just bombed rebel troops fighting Assad.
Because both the United States and Russia sit on the United Nations Security Council and have opposing goals, only small scale resolutions—and those concerning chemical weapons—have gotten any traction. There is certainly no way a resolution authorizing the use of force would pass. The legality of tonight’s strike—such as it matters—is unclear:
And that, with some changes here and there—ISIS and the rebels have generally lost ground, the Syrian government and the Kurds have generally gained ground—was where we stood on Tuesday, when Assad allegedly unleashed chemical weapons on the people of Khan Sheikhoun, killing at least 80. The Syrian government denied using chemical weapons and breaking a treaty it signed three-and-a-half years ago, while Russia said there wasn’t clear proof Assad’s government launched chemical attacks, and threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning the attack.
That the Assad government is a brutal, murderous regime that has indiscriminately killed thousands upon thousands of civilians is undisputed. Whether a limited air strike will actually do anything to help the people of Syria, topple the Assad regime, further draw the United States into an unwinnable quagmire, or cause Russia to retaliate, is unknown at this point. Recent history suggests the United States involving itself in wars in the Middle East usually has tragic outcomes, and that’s only more likely to be true with a trigger-happy idiot who doesn’t seem to care about civilian deaths running the show. Non-intervention has undoubtedly failed in Syria; it doesn’t seem likely that intervention will succeed either.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said in a statement on the attack, leaving out the part about how his successive Muslim bans (currently blocked by the courts) prevent Syrian refugees from entering the country, and that he’s called those refugees “a great Trojan horse” into the United States. It’s hard to believe that he actually cares about the lives of Syrian people.
There are, of course, domestic political concerns as well. As was sadly obvious would happen awhile ago, the pundit class has begun lining itself up behind Trump’s airstrikes. So has Hillary Clinton, in comments earlier today supporting airstrikes, and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
In this mind-bending place we’ve gone, where some on the left are cheering an airstrike launched by a Republican president, the fervent Trump-supporting alt-right is against a war in Syria:
Whether or not it appears likely, it seems like the best thing to do here is hope that whatever happens from here on out will benefit the Syrian people, and that at the least American action, however well meant or not, doesn’t make things even worse.