Last night, the United States launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al-Shayrat Airfield, the airbase from which Assad Regime forces had allegedly launched last week's gas attack against Syrian civilians and rebel forces. Russia has since denounced the attack as aggression "violating the norms of international law," and some Democrats seem eager to jump on the "Trump is a Warmonger" bandwagon. To be fair, there are many reasons to criticize the Trump administration, from austere domestic policy, to divisive rhetoric, to his escalation of the war against the Islamic State, but last night's missile attack should not be one of them.
By launching this strike in spite of Russian obstruction in the UN Security Council and the Russian presence in Syria, has sent a very clear message that the usage of chemical weapons by any state will not be tolerated, regardless of its relationship with greater powers. If Assad and other dictators believe that using such weapons will result in a strike on their territory and unavoidable losses, then that serves as a strong deterrent against future chemical weapon attacks.
Some might say call this warmongering, or a repeat of the events regarding George W. Bush's WMD hunt leading up to the Iraq war. While it is too early to tell whether the Trump administration plans on escalating further, there is no reason right now to believe that this was anything more than a one-off, tit-for-tat strike in response to the chemical attack earlier this week. If the US does escalate and begin attacking Assad forces, then it would draw itself into another protracted war in the middle east, and one that risks conflict with another nuclear power -- Russia.
Yet as of now, this does not seem to be the case, and fears about this single strike escalating into a conflict against Russia are unfounded. In spite of the condemnation Russia issued this morning, Russia had been informed of the strike ahead of time as part of deconfliction policies between the US and Russia in Syria, and chose not to intercept the missiles in spite of the fact that it has the equipment to do so. So while Russia may not be pleased with the strike, tensions have not risen to the point at which Russia would actually try to stop the attack.
Previous US administrations have used similar strategies to deal with these kinds of threats. In Operation Infinite Reach, the Clinton administration launched cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan to destroy possible chemical weapons stores in the hands of Al Qaeda. These strikes had high civilian casualties, and would afterward be used as propaganda against the administration, yet last night's strike was against a military target and no civilian casualties have been reported at the time of writing(though the Trump administration has not been squeamish about civilian casualties in other strikes). The Clinton administration also followed a similar logic in the Kosovo War, using air strikes in retaliation for Serbian human rights abuses, in spite of international legal objections. Obama also infamously drew a 'red line' on chemical weapon usage in Syria, but rather than following through on his threat, chose to cooperate with Russia as a solution. At the time, this seemed a prudent political move, avoiding a potential quagmire, but in hindsight it failed to resolve the issue at hand and provided Russia more room to maneuver in Syria. In contrast, last night's strike distanced the US administration from both Russia and Assad, and sent a clear message that their activity in Syria is not unrestricted.
Democrats who object to this strike should also consider this: If the limited use of force is not justified in retaliation to the use of illegal weapons against civilians, when is it justified? The German channel ZDF's heute journal news show asked foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel if the EU is powerless in this conflict, because unlike the US and Russia it is unable to respond to chemical weapons usage or human rights abuse with military force, and though Gabriel responded by saying that the EU has other economic and political tools at its disposal, it is clear that those did not prevent the chemical attack from happening in the first place, and wouldn't prevent another one.
In contrast, the United States has the capacity to respond to such human rights and international law violations with force. Some may point to the lack of UN approval for this strike, but if we look at previous humanitarian crises in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Darfur we can see the difference in the blood spilled between those crises which receive attention from powers able to intervene, and those that do not.
Last night's missile attack by the United States bore a relatively low cost, and may serve as a deterrent against future chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Should the Trump administration decide to escalate further, the value of this strike will change, and the US will risk being drawn into long, costly war, but for now at least, the strike seems like the right move.