Oliver Goodman, Johns Hopkins University:
On April 7th, President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria, striking a prominent Syrian airfield, as the President concluded his dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The attack was cited as a response to credible reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in an attack against his own people.
For Trump, this move was a reversal of the anti-interventionist approach he advocated towards Syria for the entirety of his Presidential campaign. The Trump administration claimed this move was a global rebuke of chemical weapons, setting the precedent that war crimes will not be tolerated by the United States government.
The timing of Trump’s attack is unlikely a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which has been documented by credible intelligence sources since August of 2016, and more likely an opportunistic warning to North Korea, whose escalating pattern of missile launches has neighbors like Japan and South Korea on constant guard.
Merely a month beforehand, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles, three of which made it into the 200 miles of sea surrounding Japan. North Korea’s ability to penetrate Japan’s exclusive economic zone is a foreboding sign for an authoritarian state with self-proclaimed malicious intentions.
It would be impudent to President Trump and his council of advisers to write off the strike as a visceral reaction to the carnage displayed in the media following President al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack. Such interpretations naively downplay the strategic planning and effect of the attack. The graphic photos of Syria following the chemical weapons attack that were disseminated by various news outlets provided a helpful cover for the President and his team, mustering domestic support by pitching the strike as a moral rebuke to cruel, violent enemy.
Trump’s attribution of his strike to US moral outrage allowed him to advance several points of his political agenda, namely preserving his status as an uncompromising strongman. In the wake of domestic and foreign policy blunders, between a poorly-received and poorly written travel ban, and a miserable attempt at creating a new United States healthcare system, Trump’s image as a masterful, steadfast negotiator took a heavy blow. Taking military action against Assad was an easy way for Trump to win back easy political points and maintain his profile as a steadfast leader.
From a foreign policy standpoint, the strike allowed Trump to present his administration as sympathetic to the woes of the Syrian people, without having to offer up sacred United States soil as a home for displaced refugees. This redirects the debate around US involvement in Syria, ensuring that whether or not the intervention is well received, the United States will not come off as passive.
Trump’s strike on Syria not only showed North Korea that America is willing to use military force against adversarial actors halfway across the globe, but also put pressure on China to take a stronger stance on their southern neighbors. The strike was, in effect, a warning shot to show that American involvement in the region goes beyond the rhetorical scope. It also deals a blow to Russian-American relations, forcing America to take a harder diplomatic stance in opposition of Russia.
The immediate consequences of Trump’s strike are unclear. North Korea has continued to test ballistic missiles in the region, seemingly unfazed, but their latest attempts have been among their most unsuccessful. Although the Chinese government is most likely still seething over the audacity of Trump’s power move, Chinese-American relations are far too invested in trading relationships to even consider diplomatic animosity. In fact, the President announced that his administration had negotiated more open trading policies with China at the same meeting he announced his airstrike.
Perhaps the most significant effect of Trump’s attack will be the newfound resentment between the U.S. and Russia, whose leaders support Mr. Assad. In the wake of the strike, Russia vocally denounced US military action, and claimed that the chemical weapons attack had been carried out by insurgents who attacked a chemical weapons facility. Russia also bolstered their military presence in the Syrian region, and closed down neutral forms of military communication between Russian and American aircrafts.
Trump’s Syria gambit, from a diplomatic perspective, made him seem much more adversarial towards Russia, a criticism that he has faced throughout both his Presidency and his campaign. The geopolitical consequences of Trump’s attack have yet to fully materialize; on the domestic front, however, Trump’s strike checks off a number of bulletins. Trump solidifies his appearance as an international strong man, taking a stand against the war crimes of a violent authoritarian. Whether or not the Trump administration has successfully intimidated North Korea, they have put significant diplomatic pressure on China, and advanced the narrative of the United States, both foreign and domestically, as a strong, ideological global police force.