In the late evening of Thursday, April 6, President Donald J. Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian airfield in response to the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war.
The military strike emerges as the largest, and some argue most surprising, foreign policy move in the early months of Trump’s presidency. According to the Pentagon, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched at Al Shayrat airfield in eastern Syria, from which the chemical attack had been deployed.
For the six years that the Syrian Civil War has been raging, the United States has avoided confronting the Assad regime directly, despite death tolls ranging from 300,000 to 470,000, and the millions of refugees created by the fighting between Assad’s regime and Syrian rebels.
The most recent chemical attack leveled by Assad killed an estimated 72 civilians, including 20 children. President Trump announced the military strike Thursday from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said. “Even beautiful babies cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
News outlets like The New York Times picked up on Trump’s statement as a signal that his decision to order the strike was driven by his empathy for the innocent civilians in Syria caught in the middle of a bloody, ceaseless war.
Senior Shelby Saunders expressed her conviction that there may be better ways to help Syrian women and children.
“While many have praised Trump’s action, for this to demonstrate empathy or a shift in priorities, a military strike would need to be in conjunction with humanitarian aid and active assistance to refugees and asylum seekers,” Saunders said.
While many were surprised by the move, it also suggested that Trump’s foreign policy strategy was beginning to take form. Assistant Professor of Political Science Danielle Lupton offered one possible explanation for the thinking behind the attack. One classical deterrence theory, referred to as “mad men theory,” asserts that a leader can signal his resolve by being a “wild card”.
“If you don’t let people know what you’re going to do, if you’re inconsistent, that can actually signal resolve and credibility, because then people will be afraid of what you might do in the future,” Lupton said.
Trump’s decision to take direct action against Assad’s government also suggested that his campaign critiques of President Obama’s inaction on the tension in Syria and ISIS were more than empty words.
“One of [Trump’s] biggest arguments was that the Obama administration was not tough enough on national security affairs,” Lupton said. “[Trump] really does seem to be, at least in his public rhetoric, and now with this, trying to create this image of him being that tough guy.”
President Obama has avoided direct confrontation with the Assad regime in Syria because of its mutual relationship with Russia and the United States. Both states have shared interests in fighting ISIS, but Russia has kept up its close ties with President Assad throughout the Syrian civil war, complicating any potential U.S. involvement.
On Thursday, Trump said Syria’s violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention warranted a military response, and his administration has stood by that position, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin denouncing the strike as an “act of aggression.”
Lupton expressed that a joint interest in fighting ISIS and other threats necessitates a strong partnership with Russia, but conflicting interests in Syria and Eastern Europe complicate our ability to fight those threats together.
“I’m interested to see how it plays out, though I’m hesitant to whip out my crystal ball,” Lupton said.