Symbolic air-strike in Syria
Donald Trump has acted swiftly in response to Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, by bombing the airfield from which the attacks had been launched. A failure to respond would have appeared to condone a war crime.
His action was measured, and largely symbolic. He had warned the Russians (and by extension the Syrians) of his intentions, which reduced the damage inflicted and reduced the risk of provoking Russia. Russia’s subsequent protest is probably equally symbolic: not an overreaction and politically necessary.
There were both benefits and drawbacks to Trump’s strike. The benefits were twofold: the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, so some punishment was appropriate, and it will probably deter Assad from repeating such attacks.
There were two obvious drawbacks: he bypassed the UN and he bypassed Congress. He may have taken the view that this was unavoidable. The stalemate in the UN Security Council would have prevented any action from being taken against Assad, and a request to Congress would have delayed him at a moment when swiftness was called for (though he should still ask for retrospective approval).
Trump’s action will have done nothing to help the process of finding the solution to Syria’s problems, but won’t have harmed it either. On balance, it seems to have been a sophisticated intervention, in circumstances where the ideal course of action (a meaningful response by the UN) was not possible.
Seen as a gesture against the use of chemical weapons, Trump’s action is probably better than doing nothing. It is important, though, that America doesn’t broaden its involvement in Syria. Its only agreed role there is the battle against ISIS. Russia would feel obliged to escalate if Assad is further threatened and, as noted in a previous post, peace talks cannot begin meaningfully until order has been restored in Syria.