Within days of a chemical attack by the Syrian government against rebel forces, the United States launched a tactical missile strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The reprisal was largely symbolic, but tremendously important for the precedent and message it sends.
The question has been raised as to how the Trump administration’s action can be justified. Actually, there are a plethora of rationales which could be cited. First, the U.S. might point to the September 2013 United Nations resolution which ordered Syria to account for and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. Obviously, Syrian authorities either lied or acquired a new load of weapons since the UN action, but either way, they violated the resolution. Further, Syria became a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013, thereby accepting responsibility for what would happen if it contradicted the terms of the agreement.
From the national standpoint, the Trump White House can employ a multitude of constitutional arguments to back its missile strike, starting with the president’s authority as commander-in-chief under Article II. While that authority is certainly understood as necessary pursuant to a declaration of war, there have been hundreds of instances of American military actions overseas without war being commenced. The president and his team could also rely on vague language like “executive power” and “faithful execution of law” found in the Constitution.
Some posit that the missile strike against the Assad government for its chemical attack should warrant implementation of the War Powers Act. However, based on the intentions of the law’s original sponsors, the legislative history of the law, and the reality of the last four decades, that law is not appropriate for such short-term operations which eschew ground troops.
At the same time, Americans need to recognize that there are, in fact, a limited number of ground troops already in Syria fighting ISIS. From that standpoint, the most recent action can be backed based on congressional support for the existing operation. To its credit, the Trump team briefed a few dozen legislators prior to the military operation.
It was apparent from President Trump’s emotional statement in response to Syria’s chemical attack that he was deeply moved by the sight of young children choking to death. So were millions of others around the world. Given previous condemnation and warnings, acting in a way that expresses the moral indignation not only of the United States, but of the world, seemed necessary.
The target for the American attack was ostensibly the very airport which Syria used to carry out its chemical weapons atrocity. According to news reports, the missiles hit the tarmac, control tower, aircraft, hangars, and fuel storage areas. Apparently, Russian authorities were alerted in advance. In short, no one can argue that this was a reckless foray. As for Russia’s criticism that the American attack represented aggression against a sovereign country, Syria stopped being able to control its own borders and territory many moons ago.
While a positive first step, America and its allies have to formulate and carry out a strategic plan for resolving the worst refugee crisis since World War II. To accomplish that, we have to acknowledge the complexity of the situation in Syria, with multiple nations and movements simultaneously jostling for position. Likewise, we must accept that leadership comes with superpower status and that the civilized people of the world will not soon forget Assad’s sickening slaughter of humanity.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He served in three staff positions with the U.S. Congress, the last of which was as an assistant to U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., the primary author of the War Powers Act of 1973.