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Trump’s attack on Syria: Four takeaways

Trump boards Air Force One on April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On April 6, two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat airfield in western Homs province in Syria. The strike purportedly came in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an attack in Khan Sheikhoun earlier in the week.

According to the Pentagon, the strike targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars. The intent was to minimize civilian casualties and comply with the Laws of War, according to the Department of Defense.

This mission signaled a radical departure from what candidate and now President Trump had suggested would be his administration’s position of disengagement on Syria.

It also certainly differed with the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama. American missions in Syria had until now been confined to attacks against the Islamic State and allied groups – carefully avoiding confronting the government of Bashar al-Assad. Now, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested, regime change in Syria is back on the agenda.

What does this airstrike portend? I think there are four key points to bear in mind, at home and abroad.

Four issues moving forward

First, the attack signals a shift away from the isolationist policies advocated by the alt-right, best reflected in the views of Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist. Indeed, some nationalists have already repudiated their support for Trump as a result of the attack. The decision is therefore consistent with what The New York Times referred to as the “downsizing of Bannon” in foreign policy matters. This was formally signaled with Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council.

Second, even under Trump, it seems, the U.S. is returning to its conventional pattern of foreign policy – what President Obama once scathingly called the “Washington playbook.” One of the key components of that playbook is a willingness to intervene globally by using force globally to protect human rights and uphold international norms. In this case, that means taking action against the proliferation of chemical weapons.

Trump’s decision may have been emotional, but it was justified by both international norms and America’s “vital” national security, very broadly defined. “America First” apparently doesn’t mean a withdrawal from America’s traditional role – what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “an indispensable power,” or others have called being the world’s policeman.

Trump promised a radical departure from traditional foreign policy. Ironically, in retrospect, it now appears that it was President Obama’s refusal to intervene that was the radical position. Candidate Trump promised not to get involved – but like many presidents before him, soon got dragged into the maelstrom of the Middle East.

The third conclusion is that Trump’s honeymoon with Putin’s Russia appears to have been short-lived. Russia immediately moved to suspend agreements on military cooperation in Syria with the U.S. intended to prevent accidental encounters between the two militaries. But the Russians also said they would bolster Syria’s air defense systems, and have been reported to be planning to send a frigate into the Mediterranean Sea to visit the logistics base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Rhetorically, the language being used by Russian officials was notable, calling the attack a “blow” to U.S.-Russian relations and a breach of international law.

It is hard to tell the extent to which the accusations against Trump administration officials – that they colluded with the Russians in the electoral process – played a role in the decision to establish their independence by confronting the Russians in Syria. But it will be interesting to see how much administration officials use this incident as an example of Russia’s lack of influence in congressional investigations in the months ahead.

My final, and most speculative, point is that it is hard not to contemplate that the Trump administration was also using this occasion to send a warning to North Korea’s government. It may have been completely coincidental that the attack took place a day after the North Korean regime launched its latest missile and China’s Premier Xi was meeting with Trump – with North Korea reputedly high on the agenda. But neither the North Koreans nor the Chinese could possibly have missed either the administration’s warnings about potential preemptive action against the North Koreans nor the example set in Syria of doing so.

With the Trump administration, we have quickly discovered that it is a fool’s errand to try to predict what will happen next. But the clearing of the smoke may suggest, ironically, that in many ways these activities signal a return to business as usual in U.S. foreign policy.

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