The Trump Pivot on Syria: What Does It Mean?


Early Friday morning local time, the United States launched 50 Tomahawk missiles in Syria targeting the al-Shayrat military airfield. The strike was ordered in response to the death of dozens of Syrian citizens during a gas attack by the Syrian government. While previously President Trump was indifferent toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, instead preferring to combat the Islamic State, the highly publicized use of chemical weapons seems to have changed his mind. The airstrike provoked strong reaction among members of Congress and politicians across the country. Most notably, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out in support of President Trump’s action.

The incident stands in marked contrast to President Obama’s refusal to enforce his “redline” policy in 2013, which called for the American government to intervene if Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against its citizens again. Indeed, President Trump’s actions yesterday represent a major shift in American foreign policy, as the United States moves to more aggressively counter Assad and Russia in Syria.

Despite what may seem as the arrival of long-awaited definitive action against Assad’s regime, President Trump’s actions are unconstitutional, illegal, and unwise. While I do not profess to be an expert on the strategic alternatives President Trump could have considered, I believe his unilateral use of force in Syria violates international norms and the Constitution, as well as sets the foundation for more violence and conflict in a region that can little afford more devastation. Furthermore, the circumstances suggest the move could be solely for political gain.

Here are the main concerns with yesterday’s attack:

  1. The strike violates the Constitution. For the President to use force, he must consult and receive authorization from Congress. As political leaders like the National Review’s David French and Rand Paul have pointed out, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution requires Congressional consent if the President wants to declare war against a sovereign nation (in this case, Syria). Despite the humanitarian disaster occurring in Syria, it is still a sovereign nation with an internal conflict that does not directly threaten American national security. Thus, the use of 50 Tomahawk missiles against the Syrian government constitutes an act of war. If the same attack happened in the United States, would we not consider ourselves to be at war? Additionally, this action is not justified under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which only justified Presidential action against “rogue”, non-state actors like al-Qaeda. Trump himself tweeted in 2013, “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.”
  1. The strike violates international law. As Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard, wrote in 2013 when President Obama considered a similar use of force in Syria, the action violates the United Nation’s charter which permits military action if it is in self-defense or if it is designed to preserve international security, which then requires a UN mandate. Neither Trump nor Obama attempted to acquire a UN mandate for the attacks, and thus are in clear violation of international law. Not only do such unilateral actions vastly expand the power of the President (as it goes beyond their Constitutional mandate) it also discredits international norms.
  1. The strike further devastates a region that has already suffered a massive humanitarian crisis. Violence only begets more violence, and greater U.S. intervention threatens to embroil the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict with no comprehensive plan to see it toward an equitable and peaceful conclusion. An additional dimension that adds more gravity to this event is the confrontation it forces between the United States and Russia in Syria. Additionally, President Trump, who has demonstrated a consistent lack of sound judgment and policymaking credentials, is at the wheel making orders. As Commander-in-Chief, the ultimate responsibility lies with him. Even with individuals such as Vice-President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster advising Trump, the situation inspires little confidence.
  1. The entire situations reeks of political hypocrisy. President Trump stated that his motivation for conducting the attack was to prevent continued atrocities against innocent Syrian civilians. However, his domestic policy still refuses to take in those same Syrian citizens suffering under the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and stigmatizes those who do currently live in the United States. Furthermore, the rapid flip-flop in policy, amidst President Trump’s record-low approval ratings, suggests that Trump may be attempting to generate the mythical “rally around the flag” effect, where Presidential approval ratings increase after military action. Given these contradictions, it is unlikely that President Trump is truly pursuing compassionate policy in Syria.

While the extreme circumstances of the Syrian crisis may appear to require bold and unusual action, the rule of law should remain paramount. In the best of circumstances, laws and norms are created to temper human ambition and emotion and try to apply consistency and fairness to difficult problems. While not perfect, the Constitution and international law can and should serve as a check against the unilateral, unpredictable, and illegal actions of any Presidential administration that considers a similar use of force. Once the rule of law breaks down, the possibilities for even more misguided policy increases. While the Trump administration should be doing what it can to prevent continued suffering in Syria, his airstrike yesterday portends to lead the United States down a dangerously similar route of repeated mistakes.

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