Dozens of civilians, including more than 20 small children, living in the rebel held Idlib province of northern Syria, were killed by poisonous gasses – perhaps sarin – claimed to have been delivered in a Syrian air strike on the command of Bashar al Assad. The entire world is appalled, with a groundswell of outrage erupting from all quarters.
The immediate reaction of the President of the United States was to blame Barack Obama. Secretary of State Tillerson answered press inquiries with a terse “No Comment.” The only adult response came from former governor Nikki Haley, now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley, whom many thought was in way over her head, took to the floor of the General Assembly to assail the perpetrators of the heinous act, to lambaste the Russians for their probable roll in it, and to demand a full international investigation. There was a plausible if improbable claim by Russia, Iran and Syria that the gas was in rebel storehouses, set off accidently by the conventional air attack. A draft resolution, joined by Britain and France, called for a full investigation by the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the proper United Nations body charged with responsibility for such outrages.
However, without waiting for any action by the U.N., without conferring or consulting with any of our allies, without conferring with any Congressional leaders, and without any confirming evidence on the facts surrounding the tragedy to make sure we had it right, President Trump did an abrupt U-turn from an unbroken chain of campaign promises and previously declared statements of policy, and ordered a retaliatory airstrike on a Syrian airbase near Damascus. It is reported that he staffed the mission with General McMasters and Secretary Mattis but not Secretary Tillerson, indicating that consideration was given only to a military response; a diplomatic solution was not even considered.
That the attack might violate international law, be contrary to the United Nations Charter to which we are a signatory, was without authorization of Congress, and was contrary to the repeated promises made during his campaign and the first three months of his term, apparently were of no concern to the White House and its cabal of advisers.
Cost of the attack to the U.S. is close to $94 million. The unit cost of firing a Tomahawk missile from a naval resource is $1.59 million a pop, and we deployed two Navy destroyers into the Eastern Mediterranean to deliver 59 of them into Syria. Reported results include some aircraft shelters and military fortifications blown up, 17 aircraft destroyed, and some reparable damage to runways and tarmac. The airbase was back in operation within hours.
Five soldiers on the base were killed, including perhaps one Russian. Two stray missiles struck villages near the airbase, killing nine and wounding thirteen civilians, including women and at least four children.
When the news was announced, we started by exchanging high-fives and congratulating ourselves for a “proportionate” response. By Sunday morning, as the full extent of the action and the beginnings of the consequences that are going to flow started to sink in, more sobering thoughts began to surface.
Russia has cut the communications link with us in Syria that allowed the two countries to coordinate ground and air operations to avoid firing upon each other. Future operations in country will be immeasurably more dangerous until and unless this communications link is restored. No one knows yet what reaction our soldiers in Syria will encounter from individual Syrian soldiers for the U.S. airstrike – if any. The irony of the death of innocent children being included in as part of an appropriate response to the death of innocent children cannot be explained – so it is simply being overlooked; it is not being mentioned. It is uncertain what Trump’s policy is now – was this strike a one-off, not to be repeated, or the start of a new policy to be put into place in the Middle East? Secretary Tillerson says it’s nothing new, but Trump talks about “being flexible.” It is not clear what this means.
One thing is certain: our foreign policy position worldwide, our relations with Russia, our standing the Middle East, and our position with our allies will not be the same. Obama’s developing policy of cooperation and conciliation has gone out the window. There is no question that the sudden attack on Syria sent a strong message around the world to our allies and foes alike – but it is not at all certain exactly what that message was. A prominent Senator on a morning talk show characterized it as a loud “Bleep you!” to anybody who opposes us.
The hawks are back in charge and are serving notice that the U.S. is once again the world’s top cop. And judge. And jury. And executioner.
How could it get any better?