On Tuesday, April 4, units of the Syrian Arab Air Force, under the command of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, took off from Shayrat airfield in the early morning and dropped chemical weapons on civilian targets in the city of Khan Sheikhoun, causing at least 85 civilian deaths and hundreds of wounded, including scores of non-combatant women and children.

It was without a shred of doubt a crime of war.

Sixty-three hours later, in the night of Friday, April 7, (Syria time), as Donald Trump hosted Chinese president Xi Jing-ping at dinner, some 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and they struck the Syrian Air Force field at Shayrat. Considerable damage was inflicted on several areas of the base, but the runways were left operational and over the next days, SAAF jets took off to bomb Khan Sheikhoun once again.

What was gained? What was lost? What now? Is there a policy? Is there an end-game?

Map of Syria.

On a previous occasion a Republican president took a miscalculated risk and initiated military action against a major country in the Middle East. That was George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq almost exactly 14 years ago.

“Miscalculated” because it quickly went wrong, destabilized the region. Indeed, U.S. troops are involved in warfare on the ground outside of Mosul to this day. In other words, it turned out to be a major blunder.

But President Bush’s move was the result of what was a long, however deeply flawed, analysis of the situation on the ground.

Then, in 2012, when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, President Obama threatened retaliation but, upon multi-factor analysis, held back and relied on Russian intervention with Damascus to de-escalate and permit international inspectors to locate and deactivate what were supposed to be “all” of Assad’s chemical stockpile. It was only a temporary improvement at best, but a de-escalation nonetheless, even though it is now obvious that some chemicals remained.

At the time, Obama’s hesitation to “crater the runways” of the Syrian Air Force was denounced by many as an unmanly hesitation, a humiliating “paralysis through analysis,” and a demonstration of U.S. threats coming from what the Chinese would call a “paper tiger.”

Don’t draw “red lines” and then fail to act forcefully when they are crossed. Indeed.

Now President Donald J. Trump, who claims to have opposed the Bush invasion of Iraq, who denounced the prospect of foreign military intervention when Obama spoke of “red lines” in 2012 (thereby supporting Obama’s decision not to act militarily), and whose foreign policy statements up until this week spoke of cooperating with Russia in the Middle East and taking the removal of Assad off the table, has, upon evidence that Assad again just used chemical weapons, reversed himself and ordered, without any congressional concurrence, a unilateral missile attack on the Syrian Air Force.

Most commentators say, “He had to do it, especially since Obama didn’t.”

However true that may be, there is little, nay, zero evidence that this decision was rooted in anything more than a knee-jerk response to an unacceptable stimulus. It was certainly not “paralysis through analysis.” In fact, it appears to be no analysis at all.

“And why did Assad think he could get away with returning to the use of chemical weapons?” one might ask.

Trump himself, indicating that the Damascus regime could remain in power, provided Assad with the opening he needed. Then came the kind of impetuous response that many feared when a vacuous solipsist entered the White House, the immediate “l’ll show you who’s boss!” reaction of an unthinking bully challenged on the playground as the result of his own thoughtlessness.

The “let’s kick some ass around here” wing of the GOP is temporarily delighted — “that will make the North Koreans wake up and smell the coffee, too.”

But North Korea presents an entirely different set of risks and the GOP leadership was, in point of fact, completely out of the loop on this one and is ignoring the fact that Trump is in considerable political trouble, with public approval under 40 percent in less than three months after taking office. No planning. No consultation.

What everybody in Washington needs to be asking themselves is this: “Was this a cleverly calculated effort to distract public opinion by creating a foreign crisis, or was this a spur-of-the-moment reaction by a man emotionally unfit to be president, a move that will push America into un-calculated foreign dangers?”

Or was it both? Since the Trump administration has no policy toward Syria, it’s anybody’s guess.

In any event, neither Moscow nor Beijing, nor even Damascus, will be fooled. The planes took off from Shayrat again this past weekend and Putin, Assad and Xi Jin-ping are playing the long game while Trump thinks no further than his next tweet.

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About the Author

  • Stephen O'Harrow

    Stephen O’Harrow is a professor of Asian Languages and currently one of the longest-serving members of the faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A resident of Hawaii since 1968, he’s been active in local political campaigns since the 1970s and is a member of the Board of Directors, Americans for Democratic Action/Hawaii.