by: Nicholas Stienberg
Last night, President Trump authorized the use of force against a Syrian airbase from which the Assad regime was allegedly launching chemical weapons attacks (I say allegedly because trying to scrape truth out of the cauldron of the Syrian Civil War and its grisly carnival of war crimes and factionalism is like trying to nail water to a wall at present). This brings us to a very big question: Is America at war?
This is an important question in how it relates to foreign relations. In Iraq or eastern Syria when fighting ISIL, the US has clear groundwork to hit targets as they are enemy territory. In Libya, NATO enforced and a UN sanction allowed them to carry out air operations against the government of Gaddafi. While domestically it was considered shaky, as Obama was essentially allowing for armed intervention without the consent of elected officials, internationally it was legal under the law. In this instance, what is the justification for such attacks and what does it mean for Syrian situation?
Obama avoided putting his hat into the ring for a number of reasons. First, their original attempts to train and arm rebels to help overthrow the Assad regime failed miserably. Support for getting involved at all with the civil war was low enough already, the American citizenry was wearying of the Middle East and its constant drain on the US, but the clear failure of the administration to even promote US interests killed any potential political support it might have had. Secondly, the Russians got involved in supporting the Assad regime, as he was a regional ally and the Russians had a vested interest in protecting their naval base at Tartus. Thus, for American military might to be used in Syrua was just asking to further antagonize an already VERY antagonized Russia. Thus throwing the American hat into the ring right now is a very concerning move.
War crimes against civilians are horrific tragedies, no matter when and where they happen, but what President Trump did was a clear violation of international law, and sets a dangerous precedent. The beginning of this century was no stranger to the US flagrantly flaunting international law; it was after all the invasion of Iraq and subsequent destabilization of the Middle East and North Africa which led to the conditions we now see. However, the blatant use of force against a nation which has not attacked the US, has not declared war on the US, and is currently being protected by one of the US’s long-time rivals is dangerous, but may also inspire said rival.
We know that Trump at least warned the Russians so that Russian military personnel who may be present at the base would hopefully not be hit. So, for all those who feared Trump had flown right off the handle, at least give him that. He gave advance warning to Russia so as to avoid turning this into an even bigger incident than it already is. But what does Russia or China or Iran take away from this? When the biggest power on the block starts launching cruise missiles at states whom they aren’t even at war with, they’ll notice. For the Russians, what is to stop them from launching missiles onto Ukrainian bases if word ever got out that Ukrainian forces killed civilians? What’s to stop China from intervening in the domestic situation of the Philippines? One would hope international law, but sadly it seems international law just isn’t fashionable these days.
It is hardly surprising that in the aftermath of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, other countries started flouting the law as well. If America can do it, what is stopping us? So Russia has flexed its muscles by curb stomping American allies like Georgia, or seizing territory from states in grey zones like Ukraine. China is constructing artificial islands to hold territory along its Nine Line Zone, and arguably create fleet bases to challenge American supremacy in the region as China rearms. Now they have been given excuses to use force if a country does something they don’t like. While Russia can expect more sanctions if they do it, what can be done to China?As Trump’s foreign policy with these countries seems to run the gamut from surprisingly soft on Russia to statements about blowing up spy boats, while threatening China with a trade war to a recently more conciliatory tone, it is yet to be predictable what the next year in foreign relations will bring. With North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine being the sensitive spots for conflict within the world right now, these actions undertaken by the US can be seen as dangerously short sighted for giving lie to the idea that international law, and subsequently the UN, hold any meaning for current or emerging powers.