Home/Daniel Larison/A Third Attack on Syria Would Be Just as Illegal as the Last Two

A Third Attack on Syria Would Be Just as Illegal as the Last Two

Syria's famine sparked its civil war (Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is once again threatening to launch an illegal attack against the Syrian government:

The United States is threatening to attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for a third time should it use chemical weapons in an assault on the northwestern province of Idlib, marking a significant shift in strategy after months of indications that the United States would soon pull out of the conflict.

In the most explicit warning to date, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, said Monday that the United States and its British and French allies had agreed that another use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would trigger a significant escalation, compared to previous airstrikes.

“We’ve tried to convey the message in recent days that if there’s a third use of chemical weapons, the response will be much stronger,” Bolton said after a policy speech in Washington.

The U.S. has attacked the Syrian government twice in the last two years in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and both attacks were clearly illegal under the Constitution and the U.N. Charter. A third attack would be just as illegal. The fact that the U.S. has to keep striking and threatening the Syrian government tells us that previous strikes have been ineffective, and that means that additional strikes would likely be no better.

Bolton’s statement suggests that this third attack would be a significantly larger one than the previous two. If that’s the case, it runs an even greater risk of setting off a wider conflict with Syria, Iran, and Russia. The danger with each new attack is that our leaders may mistake forbearance by the Syrian government and its allies for an unwillingness to strike back, and so each time that the regime and its patrons don’t respond to an attack our leaders wrongly assume that they can keep attacking without consequence. One of these times they are going to be wrong about that, and the U.S. will find itself stumbling into a bigger conflict than it bargained for. The U.S. has nothing at stake in Syria that warrants taking that risk.

It is not the responsibility of the U.S. government to police the Syrian civil war. Our military has no business operating inside Syria or keeping American forces on Syrian territory. Attacking the Syrian government exposes U.S. forces in Syria to potential reprisals, and it serves no American security interests. The Trump administration doesn’t have a legal justification for what it has done in the past, and that is why it has refused to tell Congress how it thinks its previous attacks on Syria are justified. It isn’t telling Congress these things because it has nothing credible to offer and everyone knows it. The Trump administration would be wrong to launch more airstrikes on the Syrian government, and it has absolutely no authority to do so under the Constitution. There is likewise no justification for committing acts of war against the Syrian government when it is completely unrelated to self-defense.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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