Trump Mulls Military Response to Syrian Chemical Attack

Escalating U.S. intervention in Syria comes with few benefits and lots of risks.


The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017.
Robert S. Price/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom

An apparent chemical weapons attack against a rebel-held Damascus suburb has left dozens dead, prompting condemnation from Western leaders and raising the specter of a military response from the U.S. government.

At least 42 people were found suffocated in their homes in the town of Douma, while an additional 500 sought medical aid for exposure to chemical agents, according to the Syrian American Medical Society. Photos and video circulated by Syrian Civil Defense, an opposition group, likewise showed lifeless bodies with foam around their mouths.

"Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria," tweeted President Donald Trump yesterday. He pinned the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies: "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price…"

Israel has already responded with an airstrike against a Syrian military base. The U.S. has since given indication that it may take further action, with Defense Secretary James Mattis saying that he wouldn't rule out airstrikes. Trump promised a "major decision" on Syria within 48 hours.

In rushing to respond to this latest attack, policymakers are failing to consider either the effectiveness or the risks of military action, says John Glaser, a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute.

"What are we actually trying to achieve? The last strike had zero strategic or tactical utility," Glaser tells Reason, referencing the missile strike Trump ordered against Assad last April for a prior use of chemical weapons. "It didn't improve the humanitarian situation. It didn't deter the Assad regime from taking action against his own people and killing his own people."

At least three uses of chemical weapons by the Syrian government have been alleged in 2018 prior to Sunday's attack. Both the Syrian government and rebel forces have used chemical weapons during the country's now eight-year-old civil war, according to the United Nations.

Only a fraction of the 400,000 people killed in the Syrian civil war have been victims of chemical weapons attacks notes Glaser, making the attention spent on their use "strange."

"Gas and chemical weapons hold a special place in our minds for revulsion and cruelty," says Glaser, "but it's not all that rational, I think, given how deadly the other forms of warfare have been in this civil war."

John Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar at the University of Chicago, has made this point as well, saying in 2014 that "the idea that getting killed by gas is more horrible than getting ripped apart by shrapnel and bullets is not one I buy."

While there is little chance that U.S. air strikes will deter Assad from targeting civilians in the future, says Glaser, there is a good chance that it will escalate the conflict, given that both Russian and Iranian forces continue to fight alongside the Syrian government.

"We're going to be competing in the air with Russia and potentially coming into a clash with them," he says. "Iranian forces are on the ground. If we kill a bunch of Iranians in these strikes, is it going to disentangle into some kind of fight against Iran in the region which would be deeply costly?"

In addition, the Trump administration lacks the legal authority to take action against Assad regime. Congress has not authorized military action against the Syrian government.

Whether any of this will be enough to deter Trump from escalating military involvement in Syria remains to be seen.

Trump expressed a desire for the U.S. to pull out of Syria—where we currently have some 2,000 troops tasked with fighting ISIS—as recently as last week. But the president has also failed to follow through on these more dovish instincts.

The advice he is going to be receiving is likely to become even more hawkish. John Bolton's first day as national security advisor is today, and CNN is reporting that he's leading an emergency meeting to formulate a Syrian response.

While Bolton has previously expressed some skepticism about U.S. intervention in Syria, he has also endorsed military action against Iran and has suggested a sustained U.S. military presence in Syria could check Iranian influence in the country.

"John Bolton has never been met with an opportunity to use U.S. military force that he didn't say yes to," says Glaser. "If he sees this as an opportunity to use military action as a demonstration that we're still number one, we're the boss, we're the global superpower—that very well might convince Trump."

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  1. Get the European Union to do it. After all, if they care so much about refugees, this should be a no-brainer.

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  2. Well, I think Trump should announce that there’s a red line Assad can’t cross.

    And then if Assad crosses it, the UN should prepare a strongly worded letter expressing our disapproval.

    And if that doesn’t work, we could always hold a press conference and call him names.

    Only if he crosses Trump’s red line of course.

    I mean, isn’t that what Obama would do?

    P.S. Hillary might have invaded Syria already.

    1. Hillary is not the president, and neither is Obama.

      1. And thank goodness for that.

        Otherwise, ISIS might still be a serious threat to our security, and/or we might be hip deep in the Syrian quagmire.

        That’s the point.

        1. I thought the point was to justify anything Trump says or does by throwing out red herrings about people who aren’t him.

          1. I think the purpose is more so to expose hypocrites such as yourself

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  3. A military strike against another country for its government’s actions during a civil war is just what Trump promised during his many America First speeches.

    1. Clearly no one read the fine print right below all those promises not to go to war which attracted so many paleoconservatives: “… until it becomes politically expedient to do so.”

      1. So, Hillary Clinton was a ‘paleoconservative’ eh? Very interesting.

        1. Hillary Clinton was attracted to Donald Trump?

          1. As a host in which to deposit her spawn, yes. However, the Sacrament was only partially successful, which explains his hair.

      2. Trump didn’t want to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan, but ended up doing so. He said a week ago that he wanted to withdraw from Syria and now he’s talking up war with that country.

        It would appear that regardless of the president’s own wishes, war is always the result.

  4. I say we continue to make the lives of Syrians so miserable that they will rise up and free themselves from the chains that are all they’ll have left after we’re done wrecking their country. You know, a “muscular response”. Maybe even…*raises pinky to corner of mouth*…a “full throated” response. NTTAWWT.

    1. Yes! And it should be a response in depth, addressing every aspect of the confilct. A deep-throated response, if you will. The U.S. should deep throat the Syrian civil war until all these spasms of violence have petered out.

  5. Is it weird that one of the biggest reasons I’m worried Trump will escalate war in Syria is because his strike against Assad is about the only moment in his presidency where he got positive press from non-conservative media outlets?

    1. You should consider being concerned because non-conservative media thought attacking Assad was a great idea since it mean’s that would be what most Americans want, assuming of course that conservative media also wanted war.

      1. There are multiple layers to my worry there.

    2. YES! And it’s a very good reason to worry. The man is obsessed with the press. He’ll do anything for a glowing editorial in the NYT

    3. Wait until they release Trump’s golden shower videos. Then it’s WW3 and 4.

  6. In addition, the Trump administration lacks the legal authority to take action against Assad regime. Congress has not authorized military action against the Syrian government.

    You are so damn cute.

  7. “In rushing to respond to this latest attack, policymakers are failing to consider either the effectiveness or the risks of military action, says John Glaser, a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute.”

    They’re also failing to consider that this was a false flag. You don’t need a tinfoil hat to be aware that Trump was talking about pulling out of Syria last week, and then a gas attack “by” Assad suddenly happens which will do nothing but bring stinger missiles down on his forces. Besides, a gas attack is savagery; they should use armed drones like civilized societies.

    1. 1) Stinger missiles are MANPADS. They rise up at aircraft, not down on ground forces, or from aircraft to aircraft. What few Stingers appear to be in Syria came from Turkey, which produces them itself under contract.

      2) “It’s obviously a false flag because reasons” is never convincing. That’s been said of 100 of the past zero actual false flag attacks it’s been said for.

      3) Was it a false flag in 2013 at Ghouta? How about Talmenes in 2014, Sarmin in 2015, ISIS’s mustard gas in Marea in 2015?

      I mean, it’s not like chemical weapons are not in confirmed use in the Syrian Civil War, and haven’t been for about as long as it’s been going on.

      But, you know, obviously a false flag attack. On someone’s part!

      (Whose…? I mean, not Assad and therefore also not Russia, since neither of them want the US there.

      By the Kurds? Douma’s dam near the Lebanese border, very very far from Kurdistan.

      Who you got in mind?)

      1. ISIS would be in a good position to launch false flag attacks. Timing checks out. A week after Trump makes noises about leaving Syria.

  8. I can imagine a scenario where all the Russia, Russia, Russia talk in the media will provide pressure on Trump to act against Russia on this. If Trump doesn’t then all of the Russia puppet talk will be amped up to the next level.

    Interesting times. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog, it’s more like a single, unelected hair on the tail wagging everything else.

    1. Can you imagine a scenario where the guy making the decision is ultimately responsible for it?

      1. I’m not saying he’s not responsible for it. I’m mostly implying that he’s more apt to worry about his own political self-interest rather than making a rational decision. That’s almost always the case, but this President is getting so much pressure to go against Russia just for the sake of going against Russia, even if it’s not in the best interest of the USA.

      2. Are you honestly trying to pretend like Russia fever dreams was not all about ensuring that Trump continue and expand foreign war? Did you think Bill Kristol was anti-Trump because of some genuine principle that doesn’t concern killing Arabs overseas?

  9. God I hope Trump backs off of this Syria nonsense.

    The worst decision of his term so far was to launch strikes against Assad for the last “chemical weapon attack” that Mattis finally admitted we don’t really have evidence Assad or his forces launched.

    Almost assuredly this was the Rebels using chemical weapons, like they have in over 50 other instances. There was even a chemical weapons manufactory captured by Assad’s forces just last month while pushing to retake the last parts of Ghouta.

    1. And of course the Israelis continue to behave like the belligerent shitstains that they are, launching an attack against Syria because “Muh Chemical Weapons”. They truly may be the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East.

    2. I wonder if most of the mooks calling for us to do something are aware of the powder-keg and absolute cluster-fuck that this whole thing is. I can’t imagine they have even an inkling of the factions involved.

      There’s so many factions, and none of the good ones have a chance. On top of all of the internal factions, we have 3 allies that are engaging in war in that country, supporting people that we aren’t, or in the case of the Turks, actually taking over territory and may end up in a showdown with Assad over it–risking a war with us and the Russians. The French, another NATO ally are fighting the Turks and Assad in an attempt to help the Kurds. We’re supporting Jihadist rebels along side the Israelis and the Saudis of all people. The Russians and Iranians are supporting Assad.

      1. And that’s not even remotely close to a full breakdown of this conflict.

        Assad is the only choice for a united Syria that doesn’t result in the Kurds and other minorities facing extermination. And we’re opposing him.

        1. You live in a very interesting parallel universe.

          1. Which part of what I said is untrue?

        2. “And we’re opposing him.”

          Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose him. A powerful secular Syria is the last thing they want. The US is just along for the ride, hoping to pick some arms sales and maybe even bluff the Iranians into a Washington directed regime change.

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  11. If you know that the only possible way for you to lose a war is for the US to get involved in that war, and the only way the US is going to get involved in that war is if you use chemical weapons, why would you use chemical weapons?

    1. If you know the only possible way for you to win a war is for the US to get involved in that war, and the only way the US is going to get involved in that war is if you use chemical weapons while pretending it’s the other side using chemical weapons, why wouldn’t you use chemical weapons?

    2. “why would you use chemical weapons?”

      Assad is an animal, that’s why.

      1. Doesn’t explain it. There’s no logic, and most “evil” dictators still are actually pretty smart cats and don’t do dumb things all willy nilly.

  12. My problem with this: He’s winning the war. He’s basically golden. All he has to do is maintain the status quo and he’ll probably rule until he dies. WHY would he be so stupid as to do this, when he could have just bombed or shelled the area into oblivion with nobody blinking an eye?

    I call bullshit. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was either a rebel group them self pulling a false flag to bring the USA into it, or perhaps even the CIA/Mossad/other foreign intelligence agency behind it.

    There’s just no reason for Assad to do this. It makes zero sense. If he was losing the war he might do something like this, but he’s basically won at this point. You don’t risk everything for no reason when you don’t have to. On that basis alone I’m 99.9% sure Assad wasn’t behind this.

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  14. Trump tidak ingin meningkatkan kehadiran pasukan di Afghanistan, tetapi akhirnya melakukannya. Dia mengatakan seminggu yang lalu bahwa dia ingin mundur dari Suriah dan sekarang dia berbicara tentang perang dengan negara itu.

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