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Bombing Syria Doesn’t Provide Humanitarian Relief

Contrary to the way it has been framed, the Trump administration’s bombing of a Syrian military base has virtually nothing to do with humanitarian relief. Hurling 50 Tomahawk missiles at a single military base does not fundamentally undermine the Assad regime’s ability to harm its own people, and it has zero chance of altering the military and political realities on the ground. It is merely a symbolic gesture intended to deter further use of chemical weapons.

The problem with this rationale, from a humanitarian perspective, is that by last week the Assad regime had killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons. On Tuesday, it reportedly killed about 75 people with chemical weapons. If saving Syrians from regime violence is the justification, this is a wholly irrational way to go about doing it.

There is no indication, as of yet, that the Trump administration is even operating under the premise that it needs legal authorization. Trump did not inform Congress of this elective bombing mission, much less ask for authorization, as the Constitution requires. Some members of Congress, including Sens. Tim Kaine [1], Rand Paul [2], and Ben Cardin [3], have made somewhat hollow demands that Trump seek congressional approval and legal authorization. Others, such as Sen. John McCain [4], Rep. Nancy Pelosi [5], and Sen. Chuck Schumer [6], seem all too eager to embrace the fiction that the president has the legal right to use military force at his own whim.

Furthermore, as Harvard law professor and former legal counsel to the George W. Bush administration Jack Goldsmith wrote [7] in 2013, when it looked like President Obama was on the cusp of ordering a similar strike against Assad, international law prohibits the use of force without UN Security Council approval, unless in self-defense. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, but so is bombing another country in violation of the UN Charter.


Put simply, Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian regime has no legal authority and little chance of actually mitigating the suffering of Syrians caught in the civil war. In fact, there is no U.S. military solution to the Syrian conflict. The options that do exist risk exacerbating regional insecurity and humanitarian strife and would require a massive commitment in blood and treasure that the American people seem unprepared to tolerate.

The key now is to see whether Trump will be able to resist the temptation to escalate and avoid the kind of mission creep that has sucked the United States into hopeless Middle East quagmires in the past. Trump administration officials have already begun [8] to imply that removing Assad is an evolving administration goal now. And Trump’s own party is already lobbying for expanding the mission to regime change. Sen. Marco Rubio has called [9] on the administration to increase support for rebels and coordinate with regional Sunni allies “to create alternatives to the Assad regime.”

A more paradigmatic example of mission creep would be hard to invent. If Washington does pursue regime change, it will pit the United States against Syria’s two main allies, Iran and Russia, and create a power vacuum in Syria that jihadist groups are best positioned to fill. In other words, every plausible near-term consequence of regime change would have catastrophic implications for U.S. security and regional stability.

Donald Trump has been president for only 77 days, and he has already violated repeated campaign pledges [10] to avoid wars of choice in the Middle East and, specifically, to stay out of the Syrian civil war. The American people should take note that Trump governs as he tweets: irrationally, inconsistently, and without concern for the likely adverse consequences.  

John Glaser is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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18 Comments To "Bombing Syria Doesn’t Provide Humanitarian Relief"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 7, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

This ha all the reasonability demanded of the established polity.

What it lacks in veracity in makes up for with innuendo and of the essential description of how mean Pres Assad is. And it just doesn’t fly.

1. As yet there is no evidence that any chemical weapons have been used.

2. That if such chemicals were used, that they were used by Pres. Assad’s forces and if so with his knowledge.

3. Having heard the chemical attack refrain previously, debunked from multiple angles, it’s fair to withhold any judgement on the assertion of chem weapons systems use. Including reasonable evidence that the entire assail was a hoax. The case was manufactured by interested parties.

4. The propaganda avalanche continues. This is a civil war. A civil war we helped initiate. The idea that a civil war is going to be free of casualties is nonsensical. What is just as nonsensical is that the Assad government is wantonly killing his own citizens. It’s a circular reason,. Sure he is attacking his own citizens. Those citizens that are attempting to overthrow his government. War is a brutal enterprise. What it makes of men’s choices seems to have no bottom of cruelty. But that’s war. There’s no nice face to put on it. One may have noble motives, but no nice face.

Women and children die in horrific ways. No kidding. They have since men first fought in battles for power. But this article is not that the airstrikes were illegal. It’s really about the disdain that CATO has for the current Pres and the advocacy for the removal of Pres Assad.
And I certainly get the Eu and NATO jumping on the band wagon, as another opportunity to get a shot at Russia.

The rhetorical response will e no. But the cards tell a different tale.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 7, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

“Hurling 50 Tomahawk missiles at a single military base does not fundamentally undermine the Assad regime”

Well, no. If it did, that would be contrary to the business goals of selling the next few hundred million dollars’ worth of missiles, and the ones after that, and the ones after that.

The horrible truth that has boxed in any attempts to rebuild the economy outside increasing the war munitions business, is that as the elite financiers outsourced and offshored American jobs to keep more profit for themselves, the remaining economy became ever more dependent upon war as a jobs mainstay. It has now been supersized, a bloated appetite to eat up the world that can’t ever go on a diet – our 600 million pound national life.

What’s especially “sad” aside from the loss of life that comes from feeding this ravenous beast, is that the millions of folks employed to slaughter meat for it, would become unemployed with no hope for replacement jobs, as the American worker was sold down the river, his financial security, pension and health care Shanghaied.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 7, 2017 @ 4:51 pm

Sorry, it’s a six hundred billion pound life that the military-industrial complex leads.

#4 Comment By PRDoucette On April 8, 2017 @ 11:40 am

I fully agree with you that Trump’s response had nothing to do with trying to provide humanitarian relief. It frankly appears to be nothing more than a PR job aimed at making him look decisive in an effort to boost his approval rating with the American public. If Trump truly wanted to provide humanitarian aid to the “children of God” he could have considered providing weapons to the rebels that would allow them to bring down Syrian warplanes. I would be the first to admit this solution is a double edged sword but as bad a chemical weapons are Syria’s use of conventional weapons and bombs are still killing these “children of God” in equally cruel and inhumane ways that the chemical weapons did. The Middle East is a very complex area both politically and militarily but anyone who thinks sending a few Tomahawk missiles in to Syria is going to suddenly change the course of the war and result in humanitarian relief is sadly mistaken.

#5 Comment By David Havelka On April 8, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

Assad is a fascist, a national socialist. Okay, that bad. But the opposition is worse. There is not “moderate” opposition!

FROM POLITICO: “The Syrian conflict is mind-bogglingly complicated, with dozens upon dozens of insurgent groups squaring off against the Syrian military and pro-regime sectarian militias along with forces from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Some of the insurgent groups are aligned with Al Qaeda; others with ISIS. The U.S. works closely with Kurdish groups that are mortal foes of Turkey, a problematic ally that is increasingly at odds with the United States.”

I voted for Trump because I was convinced that Hillary would start a war with Russia over a military confrontation in the Syrian civil war—a no fly zone. I voted for Trump because US past adventures into “nation-building” are failures, and horribly expensive. Flynn is gone, Bannon is gone, the only thing positive is that so far, Trump has not hired any neo-conservatives. But it doesn’t look good, does it?

#6 Comment By Conewago On April 8, 2017 @ 2:43 pm

In the past, there has been (favorable) rhetoric comparing Trump to Teddy Roosevelt.

This helps put that comparison in perspective. Roosevelt helped take America into a war with Cuba, to free the poor Cubans from a brutal war with their Spanish rulers. But American boys died, and for what? For a Cuba that was ruled by Batista and La Cosa Nostra during the 1940s and ’50s. And for a Cuba that became a communist Hell on Earth later. Unnecessary wars beget unnecessary losses that can go on for generations. And this is what we call “winning”? Well, it makes for a good hagiographical history book too. And, of course, it makes money for someone somewhere too. With people like Jared Kushner and his liberal Wall Street friends combined with the same old neocons, that’s always something to consider.

Bad policy on war converts itself into many sounds, and yet the worst and most important sound it creates is one that only the few ever heard: that sound is the sound of a bullet thudding decisively into a human body.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 8, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

Philip Giraldi: “The essential [Syria] narrative that we’re all hearing…is a sham.”

Scott Horton (Libertarian Institute) audio interview of Philip Giraldi, former CIA officer and Director of the Council for the National Interest, who writes for The American Conservative Magazine (April 6, 2017, excerpts):

Philip Giraldi: “The fact is that I am hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available, who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham. That the intelligence confirms pretty much the account that the Russians have been giving since last night [April 5] which is that they hit a warehouse where the rebels – now these are rebels that, of course, who are connected with Al Qaeda – where the rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties.

“Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear. And people in both the Agency and in the military, who are aware of the intelligence, are freaking out about this, because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he already should have known – but maybe didn’t – and they’re afraid that this is moving toward a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict…

“These are essentially sources who are right on top of the issue in the Middle East. They’re people that are stationed there with the military and with the intelligence agencies that are aware and have seen the intelligence. And, as I say, they are coming back to contacts over here in the States and telling us essentially that they are astonished by how this is being played by the Administration and by the US media. And they are in some cases people who are considering going public to stop it. They are that concerned about it. They’re that upset by what’s going on.”

Scott Horton: “On that can you say — specifically you’re saying former or current CIA – you’re saying current CIA or military officers are considering going public at this point right now?”

Philip Giraldi: “There are some apparently that are considering that because they are really shocked about the way this thing is moving. I wouldn’t categorize them as CIA and military officers. They’re certainly military personnel and they’re intelligence personnel who are stationed in the Middle East and are active duty there and seeing the intelligence that the United States government has in its hands [spoken with emphasis] about what happened in Syria. And the intelligence indicates that it was not an attack by the Syrian government using chemical weapons…They believe that the evidence indicates yes, there was an attack, but it was an attack with conventional weapons, with a bomb, and that the bomb basically ignited the chemicals that were already in place that had been put in there by the, as I say, the terrorist group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda.”

Scott Horton: “You say they might come forward because of how fast this thing is moving. How fast is it moving?”

Philip Giraldi: “Well, it’s moving really fast. Apparently the concern is among the people who are active-duty personnel is that the White House is anticipating doing something to take steps against the Syrian government. What that might consist of nobody knows. But Trump was sending a fairly clear signal yesterday [April 5th] and so was our Ambassador to the UN about the heinousness of this act. Trump talked about crossing numerous red lines and essentially they are fearful that this is going to escalate.

“Now bear in mind also the other side of this story which I’m sure you are fully aware of is that Assad had no motive to do this. Assad if anything had a negative motive. He had gotten off the hook, with the Administration basically saying that there was no longer an imperative to remove him from office. And this was a big win for him. To then turn around and use chemical weapons 48 hours later does not fit any possible scenario. I’ve seen several floated out there, but they are quite ridiculous. It was completely in Assad’s interest not to create an incident.”

Scott Horton: “Well, what about just some dumb colonel?”

Philip Giraldi: “…We don’t have, as far as I know, any evidence in any direction indicating that that [the dumb colonel scenario] was the case. But if it turned out that there is evidence, and there was a dumb colonel, I would assume that the United States government, NSA, already has that – it’s already in their possession and if that’s true, they should perhaps be forthcoming with it.

“But this is a story that we’ve seen repeated over and over and over again where allegations are made for political reasons and they’re not backed up by facts…”

Scott Horton: [Scenario put out in some quarters that] “…Because Rex Tillerson had signalled that because regime change was no longer the object of American policy in Syria that that was why Assad chose this time to test Donald Trump – to see how much he could get away with. What do you think of that?”

“I think that’s ridiculous. [Philip Giraldi laughs] Why if you have everything going your way – you’re winning the war and you suddenly have your major antagonist basically saying they’re going to leave you alone – why would you test the situation? Yes, I’ve seen that argument…but it’s a ridiculous argument…

“We’re into something like a fantasy world now where there’s a political narrative that dictates what these people in power are going to say. And it has become an astonishing – like a nether world of some kind…With this Syrian business coming up here, the media instead of waiting and seeing what the evidence was concerning what had happened, they went immediately to this source material that was provided by the opposition. And they took the opposition’s point of view and they accepted that as if it were fact.

“And all right it might turn out that, hey, Assad really had a brain fart and he actually did this. But let’s wait to see — before we start a war – what the actual evidence is and what evidence the US government has. The US government intelligence agencies have Syria covered completely. If there was a phone call made, we’ll have it. If there was a trajectory of a bomb coming in, we’ll have it. If there’s analysis of what the actual chemical on the ground was, we’ll have it. But instead we’re going to this kind of rush to war – that we almost had with Obama back in 2013…”

Scott Horton: “…What’s with Pompeo? What’s with Dan Coates? Are they going to try to protect Trump from doing the dumbest thing…or are they just going to push him right on into it?”

Philip Giraldi: “The scary thing about Trump is that there’s no clear indication that he listens to anybody. And you know, so is McMaster going to be able to do this, or Mattis, or any of them in the food chain? If he’s basically like my impression yesterday – him with the press conference – was that he was shooting from the lip – that he could not possibly have seen all of the intelligence, or known what we even knew at that point about this situation in Syria…”


#8 Comment By Philippe Lemoine On April 8, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

Very good article, I couldn’t agree more. What makes this even worse is that we don’t know what happened in Khan Sheikhoun yet, but everyone is rushing to judgment. Of course, even if Assad did this, Trump’s actions would still be illegal and ill-advised. In case someone is interested, I wrote a very detailed [12], in which I examine the evidence about the recent chemical attack and compare the situation with what happened after the chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013. I argue that, in that previous case, the media narrative had rapidly unravelled and that, for that reason, we should be extremely prudent about the recent attack and not jump to conclusions. It’s more than 5,000 words long and I provide a source for every single factual claim I make. I really believe it’s the most through discussion of the allegations against Assad with respect to his alleged use of chemical weapons out there. Please share if you thought it was interesting.

#9 Comment By James Drouin On April 9, 2017 @ 7:24 am

The total intellectual content of the article can be summarised as “never Trump means never Trump” … literally.

#10 Comment By Hexexis On April 9, 2017 @ 11:02 am

Just one question: why can’t the US of A (Trump) demand that our NATO “ally” Turkey—much closer to the fight & opposed to the al Assad regime—lob its U.S.-subsidized missiles into Syria? A “coalition,” these “allies”: & we insist on doing everything unilaterally. Our forn. policy is only foreign to any policy.

#11 Comment By Gerry Shuller On April 9, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

Want some cheese with that whine?

#12 Comment By Sean mcauliffe On April 10, 2017 @ 12:48 am

How is it ‘also’ unconstitutional ? Shouldn’t that be the first and most important ptoblem?

So many people jabber on about the greatness of the constitution right up until the point they blatantly ignore it .

Makes me sick to my stomach .

#13 Comment By Sandra Embry On April 10, 2017 @ 10:49 am

It is true that Trump is doing no good by bombing Syria. But why do we even want to bomb Syria. Read a comment above to see that it doesn’t make sense for Assad to do this. He is not a lunatic maniac. He is a secular ruler, a medical doctor, married to the loveliest of First Ladies. His people love him and support him at a far higher percentage than we, here, support our president. The Christians in Syria have supported him as their protector. And he would have been truly able to protect them if it had not been for foreign entities and “friends” of the US supporting terrorist rebels. Please study the situation in Syria before blaming Assad. He is trying to save his country. A good place to start is to look up the talks on Syria given by Virginia State Senator Richard Black.

#14 Comment By David Smith On April 10, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

“Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” The astronomer Carl Sagan proposed this rule many years ago when dealing with claims of UFO’s from outer space, extra-sensory perception, demonic possession, Bigfoot, etc. etc. We need to apply this principle to the current Syrian affair. So far, I have seen nothing close to it. Just the usual hysterical, unthinking propaganda we have been listening to for years.

#15 Comment By Fabian On April 10, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

Generally a good article but for the emphasis that Assad is the only one who is killing his people in this sorry country. They are killing each other and I don’t think that any camp is better than the other. This day Jihad Don lost me.

#16 Comment By Ben_C On April 10, 2017 @ 2:17 pm


After all these years John still isn’t facing certain realities–which is typical…

It’s true that Donald Trump is an unmitigated disaster. Be that as it may, there is no “evidence” whatsoever of that Assad was responsible for the ‘Chemical Attack’…

Something John either does not want to admit or is running away from…

#17 Comment By jb On April 10, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

Ah, but you see . . .

We have always been at war with Oceana!

War, and the eyes of the large majority glaze over, and suddenly, from PDT down to Joe Six-pack, the haed media, lying spooks, and the Pentagonadals against who Eisenhower one warned us . . .

Are somehow right!

Ok, got it!

#18 Comment By GregoryJ On April 12, 2017 @ 4:00 am

I was not a supporter of Mr. Trump during the election but I at least had hopes that he would bring some sanity and a different and more correct perspective to our foreign policy. Unfortunately, it seems the president has become captive to his own lack of philosophical foundations and his own emotional Twitter expressed beliefs, and the perpetual war party ensconced throughout our national government. Where are philosophical conservatives like myself, (who think Assad is better than the Islamic terrorists who will inevitably take over Iraq if he falls, to go?