The case for attacking the Syrian government remains as weak and unpersuasive as ever, and the reasons not to do it make much more sense. Regardless, Trump appears to be seriously considering launching an illegal attack on the Syrian government on the dubious grounds that “something should happen.” I have talked about the potential dangers of such an attack for years, so regular readers will already be very familiar with what I’m going to say, but I will offer a quick summary of why the attack shouldn’t happen.
The U.S. has no authority or right to strike at the Syrian government without U.N. authorization, and that authorization won’t be forthcoming. Despite the conceit that the U.S. is the world’s “policeman,” our government has no right to launch a war against another government because of its alleged war crimes. Possible strikes are being described as a punitive measure, but our government is not the world’s appointed executioner and our military should not be used for that purpose. Put simply, attacking the Syrian government would be illegal, which would be all the more ridiculous when the attack is being carried out ostensibly in the name of upholding international order.
The U.S. cannot pretend that it is enforcing any U.N. resolutions, and it is not acting in self-defense or the defense of a treaty ally. An attack on the Syrian government would also be difficult to justify in other terms. There is little likelihood that an attack would deter further use of chemical weapons, and it is more likely to help drag out and intensify the current conflict rather than hasten its end. If the ultimate goal is or becomes regime change, that will produce even greater evils than the ones the attack is supposed to prevent. Even if regime change is not the goal, it is difficult to see how killing more Syrians makes anything better. Joining in the carnage in Syria will not help the civilian population, but will most likely subject them to additional suffering. Insofar as an attack significantly weakens the regime, it would benefit only jihadists and their allies, and doing that makes no sense.
No U.S. interests are threatened by the Syrian government, and at present the Syrian government’s patrons are to some degree on the same side as our government in their hostility to ISIS. Attacking the Syrian government would be a boon to jihadists, the start of a new and unnecessary war for the U.S., possible direct confrontation with Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria, and a potentially disastrous provocation of a nuclear-armed major power. Trump is always emphasizing how the U.S. gets nothing from its foreign wars, so it bears repeating that the U.S. would most certainly get nothing from picking another fight in the region except increased costs and new enemies.
If Trump were half the realist or even the ‘Jacksonian’ that some of his supporters have claimed him to be, this intervention would not be under consideration, but then Trump is first and foremost a militarist and seems inclined to favor military options to the exclusion of everything else. If Trump were remotely serious about his “America first” rhetoric, the obvious lack of any threat to American interests would ensure that there would be no U.S. military action taken against Syria’s government, but his use of that phrase has always been opportunistic and it has never meant that he is interested in staying out of foreign wars or minding our own business.
Deeper intervention in Syria seemed to be something that Trump was unlikely to do as president based on what he said during the campaign, but he could never be trusted to do what he said and his foreign policy views have always been unformed (and uninformed) and can be easily changed. Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience and knowledge make him much more susceptible to bad advice, and his lack of any firm convictions means that he is more likely than most to yield to demands that he “do something” in response to an ongoing conflict.