President Donald Trump’s 59-missile attack on the Syrian Government’s Shayrat airbase over Thursday night was unexpected and could change the course of the 21st century. But aside from his claim that it was retaliation for last week's deadly chemical attack which killed 70 people, why else could he have done it and what could the consequences be?
As John McCain's tweet (1) says, the strike does put a political line in the sand and shows that Trump isn't afraid to upset Putin (2) by attacking his ally Syria. Not only has it shown an unwillingness to pander to the wishes of the Russian leader, it has opened the floodgates to active opposition of the Russian government's views. The US ambassador to the UN addressed (3) an emergency Security Council session yesterday, saying "The world is waiting for the Russian Government to act responsibly in Syria. The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliances with Bashar Assad."
There is an argument that the barrage will warn Assad against further use of chemical weapons, particularly on civilians (4), and that it could halt increasingly volatile (5) North Korea. However the strike could cause unforeseeable complications in an already complex war. It pits them against the Syrian government and could lead to an escalation, support for which is divided in America (6).
What is against the will of his core voters is his disobeyance of his America First foreign policy (7), which was highly promoted as part of his election campaign. As Perry Bacon Jr. points out (8) it's a surprising move considering his otherwise total obedience to his campaign promises (See his wall (9), environmental policy (10) and pipeline allowance (11)). It also flies in the face of his campaign’s position on Syria (12), and was unapproved by Congress, an action which trump himself said would be a mistake in 2013 (13).
The strike does break one campaign policy that might not anger Trumpites too much; that of warming relations ties with Russia. The President’s term has so far been marred by allegations of collusion with the country, leading to his National Security Advisor’s resignation (14) and an FBI investigation (15) during only his third week in office. In the week before the strike, two more possible connections (16) with Russia emerged including a meeting between his son-in-law Jared Kushner and the head of a US-sanctioned state-run Russian bank. Some commentators (17) believe the attack was orchestrated to distract the public from these allegations and downplay the week's revelations concerning Trump-Russia ties. Either way, Trump fans will certainly find something to rally behind from the attack.
Speaking of rallying, some commentators (18) are accusing Trump of committing the attack merely to induce a “rally around the flag” effect (19) to remedy his unprecedentedly low approval rating. While events that cause a dramatic ratings boost are rare, the leap in approval for fellow Republican President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks (from 51% to 86% in four days (20)) gave the President a record level of approval and the mandate to initiate the Iraq war. When reviewing the airstrike, political analyst Harry Enten (21) was unsure whether the strike would cause any rallying effect and polls since have shown the action to be a polarising one: both his approval and disapproval rates have risen by 0.3% (22) in the day since.
But this “rally around the flag” effect could be quickly lost, as the attack has gone against his election promises and could drag America into the ongoing Syrian civil war, the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. The inevitable Vietnam Syndrome (23) felt by some of the population would be further heightened by the similarities between the two actions: they’d both have taken place in small countries, both would have pitted the US against guerrilla enemies and both would’ve been on the other side of the Earth. This aversion to foreign intervention has only been heightened since Vietnam, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being seen as key factors in the de-stabilisation of the region. It’s widely accepted that the Iraq war and the removal of Saddam Hussein played a role in the creation of ISIS, with even then-Prime Minister Tony Blair (24) agreeing. Also US fighting in the Korean War, created and fed the anti-western rhetoric that North Korea has become known for in the 65 years since. Historically, America doesn’t have a lot of luck overseas, but we’ll have to see if this is a sign of escalation or just a single act of retribution for chemical attacks on children as Trump claims (25).
But the fact we don’t know is a little worrying: for a sign of force it doesn’t really tell us where Trump stands on Syria. Considering the size and cost of it (59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing $82 million by some estimates (26)) the strike has been relatively vague in its message. Something the strike did accomplish was a spike in share price for Tomahawk makers Raytheon, a stock which Trump has be known to ow and coul profit from (27). While it definitely angered Russia, Syria and North Korea (28), it hasn’t achieved very much in telling us his stance on the conflict.
In fact, it didn’t achieve much at all: the airbase was operational again in hours and carried out 24 attacks within a day of the bombing (29). The strike raised only raised fears among locals of retaliatory attacks and has been used by the Syrian Government as further propaganda against America, who claimed in a state-run paper that four children were among the nine killed by the missiles (30).
So was he right in launching the strike? We’ll only be able to tell in the future, but it will undoubtedly prove to be a pivotal moment in the conflict and possibly in the century: it could signal the beginning of a wider war or worsening relationships with Russia. There’s a possibility that in the search for a ratings boost, President Donald Trump could’ve just started World War 3.