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Airstrikes Against Syria Would Set Off a Powder Keg

UPDATE 9 p.m.ET : President Trump announces joint air strikes with the UK and France against Syrian targets in retaliation for suspected chemical attack a week ago in Douma. [1]

One year since the U.S. illegally launched 59 cruise missiles at Syrian government forces in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack, the Trump administration is preparing to take similar military action despite an increased risk of escalation that could lead to the start of a wider war.

The U.S., France, and Britain have been preparing [2] to strike the Syrian government over the last several days, and Syria’s Russian patron has threatened the “gravest consequences” in response to an attack. Russia didn’t respond to last year’s one-off airstrikes, but Moscow isn’t likely to tolerate a larger U.S. attack carried out with other governments. Syria’s government and its allies seem more willing to fight back [3] than they were a year ago, and that should give the Trump administration and our European allies pause. There is a greater risk of great power conflict erupting in Syria than there has been at any time since the end of the Cold War, and if Russian military personnel are killed by U.S. or allied strikes there is no telling how quickly things could deteriorate there and in other parts of the world.  

President Trump’s public statements have strongly suggested that an attack will be happening soon, going so far as to taunt [4] Russia on Twitter that they should “get ready” for the “new” and “smart” missiles that the U.S. would be using. Some members of Congress have insisted that the president lacks the legal authority to launch an attack on Syria without their authorization. As Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) put it [5], “[I]f this president can decide unilaterally to bomb Syria, I worry that he can make the same decision about North Korea or Iran or other nations. And these decisions are not supposed to be made without consultation and voting by Congress.” Unfortunately, Congressional leaders have shown no signs of wanting to hold a debate or have a vote before the attack takes place.

The Trump administration has not offered a public legal justification for last year’s strikes, and it seems unlikely to offer one this time. That is probably because there is no plausible interpretation of the law that permits the president to initiate hostilities against foreign governments on his own when the U.S. has not been attacked. There is no provision in international law that allows a U.S. attack on another government without explicit Security Council authorization, and we know that this authorization that will never be forthcoming in this case because of Russia’s veto. While the attack is being sold as the enforcement of a norm against chemical weapons use, it isn’t possible to uphold an international norm while violating the most fundamental rule of international law.

To date, the U.S. and its allies have presented no definitive evidence to support their claims against the Syrian government. It is entirely plausible that the Syrian government is guilty of using chlorine or sarin against its enemies and the civilian population, but there has been no real effort on the part of the U.S. and its allies to prove their accusation before deciding to act as executioners.  Regardless, the U.S. and its allies have no authority to punish the Syrian government, and in doing so they may do significant harm to international peace and security.

A U.S.-led attack on the Syrian government could lead to war with Russia or Iran or both at once, and there is also a danger that it could help set off a war between Israel and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said [6] earlier this week that Israel would not “allow” an Iranian military presence to be established in Syria. The prime minister’s threat came on the heels of Israeli strikes inside Syria that reportedly killed seven Iranians serving alongside the Syrian regime’s forces. Iran has threatened retaliation for the attack, and it has the ability through Hizbullah to make good on that threat if Israel carries out additional strikes. Israel might use a U.S.-led attack on Iran’s allies in Syria as an excuse to strike more Iranian targets, and Iran might then respond in kind with missile attacks on Israel. Lebanese, Syrian, and Israeli civilians would all suffer if that happened, and it would make an already chaotic international situation even worse.

It is a measure of how divorced from U.S. and allied security our Syria policy has become that our government is seriously preparing to launch another illegal attack on a government that hasn’t attacked us and doesn’t threaten us or our allies. Attacking the Syrian government won’t make the U.S. or any other country more secure, and it will likely weaken the government just enough to prolong Syria’s civil war and add to the suffering of the civilian population. It is a perfect example of a military intervention that is being done for its own sake with no connection to any discernible interests or strategy. No one stands to gain from such an attack except for the ideologues that have incessantly demanded deeper U.S. involvement in Syria for the last six years.


Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog [7]. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic, and The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter [8].

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Airstrikes Against Syria Would Set Off a Powder Keg"

#1 Comment By balconesfault On April 13, 2018 @ 12:52 am

Yes, yes, and yes.

For a few years, I’ve been arguing that while much of Obama’s response to Assad presumably crossing his “red line” was muddled and undisciplined, he was right in one thing. He put the ball in Congress’ court before he ordered any kinds of retaliatory strikes.

(and yes – he should have done the same before providing air cover to Libyan rebels, even if those were coordinated with allies)

Why aren’t our Congressional leaders out in front demanding today that Trump discuss any plans for strikes on Syria first?

Oh, right.

#2 Comment By Tiktaalik On April 13, 2018 @ 2:10 am

I’m pretty sure that Pompeo’s confession would not be too beneficial in the long run either
‘We killed 200 Russians’
‘We are exceptional [so we can engage in regime change]’

#3 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 13, 2018 @ 6:05 am

Amazing, Trump is pro-Putin yet even he will roll these dice. This episode will also demonstrate again how European allies aren’t spending enough on their militaries.

Their priorities are twisted. They’ll wake up, as they keep finding out that less than 2% is far too low, you run out of bombs that way.

There’s a chance for planetary improvement, though. For instance, if there was no NATO, France, Britain, the United States would probably just kind of relax and lay back, you know.

#4 Comment By Frank On April 13, 2018 @ 6:33 am

How many different ways can you say the same thing?

#5 Comment By General Manager On April 13, 2018 @ 7:14 am

Jared and John the ultimate warmongers should be given ample arms and dropped on Damascus to sort everything out on behalf of their beloved Israel and AIPAC. Not my kids and family. This is not our war. [9]

#6 Comment By Christian Chuba On April 13, 2018 @ 8:13 am

This is 2003 Iraq again only this time we are risking a war with both Russia and Iran while attacking Syria. The same war fever has fully gripped the MSM, Conservative and most liberal commentators. The ‘no blood for oil’ crowd has even disappeared. We are getting worse as a country, not better.

We are going to war by the word of ‘Army Of Islam’ and ironically enough, a USAID funded NGO, the ‘White Helmets’ who are rebel activists. If this is based on a lie and ends in disaster the irony will be great.

The OPCW is scheduled to examine the actual site of the alleged attack this Saturday but the warmongers are too eager to attack to even wait for that. [10]

#7 Comment By Michael On April 13, 2018 @ 9:12 am

Excellent piece. Glad to see not everyone has lost their mind over there. How can Trump make any decisions on this when he is permanently distracted by TVs with Mueller, Cohen, Stormy Daniels, the inclement weather all on at once?

#8 Comment By Annapolitan Prof On April 13, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

A very big problem here is Israel’s constant goading of Iran, trying to make Iran blunder by responding to Israel’s provocations in a way that would drag in the US.

It is remarkable that Israel, which shirked the real fighting and paid no cost at all for the past 17 years of Middle East wars, has recently been sliding in behind our Syria operations, darting from behind Uncle Sam’s skirts to bomb and attack its own target priorities.

In keeping with its longstanding pattern of parasitic behavior vis a vis the US, it seems likely that Israel is also exploiting our Syria presence more directly, demanding that we hit certain targets and trying to keep us entangled there by other means.

#9 Comment By Watosh On April 13, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

So our media and our demented rulers would risk a nuclear war over the unverified report that Assad used poison gas and killed 20 or so civilians. Remember when during the reign of the Communist Soviet regime ruled over Eastern Europe, and the Hungarians rebelled and the Soviets moved into Hungary with their Army and tanks and brutally crushed the Rebellion. Eisenhower was criticized by many for not having the U.S. intervene on behalf of the Hungarians whom we all sypathised with. But he didn’t and we didn’t have war and today Hungary and most of the other eastern countries that were under Soviet Russian control are members of NATO and closely allied to the U.S.

#10 Comment By Jason On April 13, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

Annapolitan, you are incorrect. You seem to imply that Israel is our client state here. No, we are Israel’s client state.

It is remarkable the degree to which Israeli interests control our own. Our foreign policy isn’t even remotely connected with US interests.

And yet, we investigate Russia’s influence on our political system, when there are a couple orders of magnitude more interference from Israel.


#11 Comment By EarlyBird On April 13, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

Thank you for this breath of sanity.

In the New York Times yesterday there was one op-ed comparing the situation in Syria to the Holocaust, while in another one, Bret Stephens, writing from Israel, called for a decapitation strike against Assad and his government in the name of “reestablishing international norms.” Sounds familiar.

#12 Comment By George Hoffman On April 13, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

Having served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam which was based upon falsified intelligence, I have been a card-carrying cynic when it comes to our government. I reluctantly could see justification for the war in Afghanistan, but I knew when the neocon and liberal hawks inside the beltway bubble started beating their little tin drums for another illegal war in Iraq, again based upon cherry-picked intelligence, this propaganda campaign harkened back to LBJ’s infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Now that we destroyed the nations of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and of course, supporting Saudi Arabia in its almost genocide against the Yemen people, now the usual suspects of warmongers want to get us in a proxy war with Russia, Iran and Hizabollah that reminds the way nations allowed themselves to sleepwalk into the Balkan powder keg ang ignite the First World War. The war on terror now rivals the foreign policy debacle in Vietnam. Perhaps, that’s why after all these decades that war still haunts me having seen the human face of war. And two months ago, even Secretary of Defense James Mattis admitted to a news reporter that we still haven’t found out who was responsible for the first chemical attack. And I find it ironic that our fearless leaders think they have the high moral ground yet conveniently forget or perhaps refuse to acknowledge our country committed a war crime using Agent Orange in Vietnam against both the Vietnamese people and America soldiers serving in country during that war. In September, 2010, the VA awarded me a disability compensation for my exposure to Agent Orange. But the three million Vietnamese and 150,000 of their children who were born with hideous, crippling birth defects will never get any compensation as equal victims of exposure to Agent Orange. Now, I enlisted and volunteered for Vietnam, and kind of heart disease linked to my exposure to Agent Orange was awarded a moderate compensation. I can accept that and go on with my life. But for this country to righteous predicate another war given what our leaders did in Vietnam simply boogles my mind. Have these warmongers no shame? Since many of them now in power avoided military service by student deferments (Joe Biden got even more deferments than Dick Cheney) or hid out in the National Guard during the war like George W. Bush or got a medical deferment based upon bone spurs like Donald Trump. But this represents the moral decline of our nation since the debacle in Vietnam. That was when we crossed our constitutional Rubicon. All these other wars are the endgames of our bloated and corrupt military empire and further erode our republic.

#13 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 13, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

Mad Dog Mattis is holding Trump back, he’s terrified of Trump’s willingness to risk a skirmish in the desert. With Russia. Bless his heart.

He might be impeached pretty soon, but I think he hired Mattis exactly for this reason. He adores generals, and each one that he hires thinks he’s insane. Doesn’t sound like a coincidence to me.

He probably has a strong self-preservation instinct, which shines through in unexpected ways.

#14 Comment By Alex Ingrum On April 13, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

Another war for Israel, again supported by the utterly corrupt theocrats in Saudi Arabia and the duped Christian Zionists in the U.S.

When will we wake up and see that we are being played by Netanyahu and his dutiful servants in Congress and the Pentagon? The obsequious fawning over Israel by Pelosi, Schumer, Pence, and other venal politicians gives me nausea.

History doesn’t repeat, but it definitely rhymes:

Before the Iraq War in 2003, it was the non-existent WMDs that justified the launch of war. Today, it’s the unconfirmed chemical weapons attack (an attack which makes zero strategic sense from Assad’s perspective since he’s already winning).

Back then Saddam Hussein was the new genocidal Hitler. Today, Assad and his ally Ayatollah Khamenei are the new genocidal Hitlers (thanks for the help with that one on 60 Mintues, MBS!).

Back then, regime change would bring democracy and prosperity to Iraq. Today, the same idiotic claim is being made about Syria.. and then Iran next in the crosshairs.

And our mainstream media are infuriatingly compliant with or supportive of this insanity. Thank you, Daniel Larison, for keeping one light on to show us what’s really in the room.

#15 Comment By Ray Joseph Cormier On April 13, 2018 @ 7:15 pm

The US accuses Russia of undermining the Global Order as represented by the United Nations since the end of WWII.

That is entirely Projection by the US.

Americans may be in denial, but the World knows, it was the “Leader” of the World, after the UN Security Council denied the US permission to invade Iraq, the US just blew the Global Order away, and invaded Iraq anyway, in violation of International Law, ushering the Law of the Jungle into the Middle East and the World.

The US is in violation of International Law and the UN Charter just being in Syria. According to the UN Charter, if the US fires missiles into Syria without the express authorization of the UN Security Council, that would be a War Crime.

The US, in it’s delusional self-proclaimed ‘exceptionalism’ is still subject to International Law, which the US undermines with it’s unilateral acts of War.

#16 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 13, 2018 @ 7:17 pm

We know that Trump really hates to think about poisoned children or spies. A noticeable turn against Russia started with Skripal. I’m not the kind to readily assume these attacks were fakes, but setups do exist. It looks like Trump can be easily swayed by the thought of unconscionable human torment. I recall how readily he spoke at rallies about people being burned in cages, head chopping, bullets dipped in pig’s blood, whoever does the heinous deed, let’s torture them, let’s kill their families.

The man is very obsessed with and very affected by gruesome physical suffering.

#17 Comment By b. On April 13, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

“the Trump administration is preparing to take similar military action despite an increased risk of escalation that could lead to the start of a wider war”

This may be so, but is also irrelevant.

If Trump found an illegal, aggressive act of war that carries no risk of escalation, would that make any difference?

If Moscow does not retaliate, would that make any difference?

No, because the damage done here – not a risk, a certainty – is that each of these illegal acts of aggression erodes and demolishes the so-called “international order”, the national “rule of law”, and the Constitution. Trump swore an oath of office, he is violating it, again. Ryan swore an oath of office, he has made a mockery of it.

“There is no provision in international law that allows a U.S. attack on another government without explicit Security Council authorization, and we know that this authorization that will never be forthcoming in this case because of Russia’s veto.”

This is not so, and it is also irrelevant. Russia’s veto is insufficient to prevent the US from seeking authorization from the UN General Assembly, and the US is free to do so at any time, by invoking UN Resolution 377 “Uniting for Peace”. That the Trump administration, like its predecessors, refuses to so has the same explanation as why neither sought Congressional authorization – however irrelevant given the UN Charter and the Constitution – either: everybody knows that the administration will not be given the cover – legal or not – it hence refuses to seek.

The false claims regarding the alleged inability of the US – or indeed any other member of the UNSC – to attempt to set aside a UNSC member veto just support the claims of such – as our UN ambassadors, usually – that make the other false claim, that a UNSC veto somehow authorizes and legitimates the very unilateral action that was vetoed.

Daniel Larison here makes a utilitarian argument instead of a principled one, and undermines it by providing credibility for a misrepresentation of how the UN is set up to work. It is because our public discourse fails to argue on principle instead of risks and gains that somebody like Trump feels empowered to break his oath of office with the same impunity the US has committed other acts of aggression – such as the invasion of Iraq.

#18 Comment By b. On April 13, 2018 @ 10:49 pm

‘Trump said a combined operation with France and Britain was under way and that they were prepared to sustain the response until Syria stopped its use of chemical weapons.’

This is either a prescription for regime change, or another idiocy.

“These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead,” Trump said referring to Assad and his suspected role in the chemical weapons attacks. “To Iran and to Russia, I ask, what kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” Trump said.

The Yemeni will be relieved to hear that our President has his priorities as straight as his spine. It puts an entirely different angle on the word “crooked”.

#19 Comment By Emil Bogdan On April 14, 2018 @ 1:54 am

There ought to be a concerted effort to get lots of images of gassed and messed up crying Yemeni kids in front of Trump’s face. That might be the best chance.

#20 Comment By Realist On April 14, 2018 @ 3:06 am

Evidently the US is exceptional….it is getting away with one more illegal act.

#21 Comment By Bryan Hemming On April 14, 2018 @ 4:16 am

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was quite clear about the sort of attacks on Syria being carried out by the United States, Britain and France at this moment. The tribunal stated: “War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

It must be borne in mind that this is not the first attack these three nations have carried out on the sovereign territory of Syria. These highly provocative attacks are an international crime and amount to acts of war. Their perpetrators must be brought to trial if international law is to mean anything at all. But there you have it, international law means nothing at all to three members of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The United States, France and Britain are judging themselves. Now that can’t be right.

#22 Comment By SteveM On April 14, 2018 @ 9:26 am

The U.S. now has a totally militarized, Culture of Death foreign policy, illustrated by a slaughter first, ask questions later mentality.

But no, it’s actually worse than that. It’s a slaughter first and avoid answering the questions altogether mentality.

And now as usual, in a civic culture warped by the quasi-religious Cult of Military Exceptionalism, at sporting events American citizens will be encouraged to celebrate the “Warrior-Heroes” who “defend our freedoms” by slaughtering natives 6,000 miles away from U.S. shores based on a false flag event enabled by its Deep State apparatus.

#23 Comment By Dee On April 14, 2018 @ 11:07 am

“It is a perfect example of a military intervention that is being done for its own sake with no connection to any discernible interests or strategy.”

If you compare yesterdays CNN website coverage (Cohen,Stormy,Mueller, Rosenstein), with todays, (wall to wall Syria complete with damage assessments, neat missile pictures, and of course trump looking presidential pictures) the intests and strategy become clear. Mission Accomplished.

#24 Comment By Youknowho On April 14, 2018 @ 11:49 am


I heard it called “Operation Desert Stormy Daniels”

#25 Comment By jk On April 14, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

Nations that do not open their doors to Syrian refugees have no right to say they are doing anything for the Syrian people AS DO nations that support the Saudi bombing and famine of Yemen.

The US does not support either so end this charade of good will. What a joke, they try to cite Assad breaking “International Law.” When has International Law applied to any US military adventure?

#26 Comment By Bertb On April 14, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

This was a dumb, pointless move, but I don’t see this auguring neo-con style endless war a-la Iraq. The cost of doing this to the US is low, as are its gains. This is was by all accounts a pump-and-dump operation, and you can already hear the left and the right in this country (notwithstanding the media hype machine) complaining about its pointlessness, and next thing you know the child in the white house will find something else to preoccupy himself with.

The Israelis are already complaining that it reeks of lacking a strategy about to uproot Iran from Syria.

The Russians and Iranians are blustering to save face, but even they’ve admitted that nothing has changed on the ground.

Using this as a precedent to predict prolonged Bush-style military presence or World War 3 just seems like a gross exaggeration given that its nothing but a mere drop in the pond. Pointless and stupid, indeed. But within a year, people aren’t going to be talking about American military misadventure in Syria. It’s going to be Syria and Iran dealing with a pool of their own dead in wake, and Turkey leaving its own pool of dead up North.

#27 Comment By What’s That Smell? On April 15, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

““To Iran and to Russia, I ask, what kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” Trump said.”

Sadly, the answer to that question seems to be “America under Obama and Trump”. Otherwise why would America help Saudi Arabia kill innocent Yemeni men, women and children? Which it is doing right now, in what is by general agreement the “worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century”?