The Trump Administration claims that the attack was to punish the Syrian Government for using chemical weapons against civilians in Khan Shaykhun governate during the preceding week. However, it has not been established that the Syrian Government was responsible for the release of the cloud of toxic gas; the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had asked the international community to avoid taking actions that would prejudice its ongoing investigation.
Before the air strike, heads of government such as Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau spoke of the need for an investigation before any action. In his words: “There are continuing questions ... about who is responsible for these horrible attacks against civilians, and that's why I'm impressing on the UN Security Council to pass a strong resolution that allows the international community to determine first of all who was responsible for these attacks and how we will move forward.”
Trump was not inclined to wait for the facts to become clear. Shortly before the U.S.’s attack, Trump criticized President Obama for not bombing Syria without UN approval after the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta. Serious doubts remain about whether the Government was responsible, or whether this was an act of the so-called 'rebels', who are largely comprised of and led by members of al-Qaeda in Syria (which renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in 2016), which have been armed quasi-covertly by the United States, and more openly by Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, with Turkish assistance.
Some of those who pointed the finger of blame towards these 'rebels' could not be brushed aside. Carla Del Ponte was serving at the time as a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, having been appointed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Shortly after the Ghouta attack, she asserted that the 'rebels' had used chemical weapons. (Del Ponte is also an experienced war crimes investigator, having previously served as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia).
Western governments pushing for war on the basis of this flimsy pretext ran into resistance. When the Intelligence Services of the United Kingdom presented the case in 2013 that the Syrian Government was responsible, Parliament rejected it. As Peter Flatters noted, “[w]ith the Prime Minister claiming that intelligence findings were compelling enough to warrant action, the remarkable thing was Parliament’s response — namely that it did not believe him, or rather that it insisted on seeing the evidence for itself.”
It was evident in 2013 that Parliament learned its lesson after being presented with fraudulent evidence before the Iraq War. The “intelligence and the facts were fixed around the policy,” to use the words quoted in the Chilcot Commission's Report. (The Report concluded that Prime Minister Tony Blair had lied about Iraq possessing chemical weapons in order to justify the Iraq War to Parliament, just as Secretary of State Colin Powell & Ambassadors Samantha Power and Nikki Haley lied to the United Nations about Iraq and Syria's possession of chemical weapons.) Ultimately, President Obama recognized that the evidence about the Ghouta chemical attacks was insufficient for him to proceed against Syria without the cover a new ‘coalition’ after the Parliament of the United Kingdom declined to join it, as his Director of National Intelligence told him that the evidence wasn’t a “slam dunk”, a coded allusion to the fact that the evidence was even flimsier than that given to President Bush by his Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet.
Trump is not one to fear damage to his reputation after being later proven wrong. His gamble appears to have paid off: despite proceeding without any evidence of the Syrian Government's responsibility, Trump is now basking in the adulation of the American foreign policy establishment. He has wiped all discussion of his alleged links to Russia from the headlines; today the country’s five most read newspapers have published eighteen opinion pieces –all in favour of Trump’s attack. The entire spectrum of political opinion is united in its praise: even Elizabeth Warren approved, arguing that the “Syrian regime must be held accountable” and agreeing that Trump had the power to conduct air strikes for sixty days before seeking authority from Congress. This was three days after she criticized Trump for “show[ing] contempt for our Constitution” by cooperating with Republican Senator’s amendments to the rules for calling a vote on a judicial nomination.
Warren was wrong on both counts. The Rules Clause of Article I of the Constitution states that: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings”, which allows the Senate to amend its voting rules. However, the War Powers Clause states that “The Congress shall have power . . . To declare War”. The International Committee of the Red Cross concluded that the air strike created a state of war between the United States and Syria: “Any military operation by a state on the territory of another without the consent of the other amounts to an international armed conflict.” According to Professor Amal Saad of the Université Libanaise, this means that under the Law of Armed Conflict, proportional attacks on the United States by Syria (or its ally, Russia) are authorized under the Article 51 of the UN Charter, while the United States is liable for any war crimes it commits, as its forces are unlawful combatants.
In short, Trump violated both domestic and international law in an incredibly reckless escalation of a serious and intractable conflict. What is even more shocking is that in launching the war (that Hilary Clinton and her foreign policy establishment wanted desperately), he has rehabilitated himself: politically connected pundits like Nicholas Christof and Fareed Zakaria all agree. When asked about this significance of the attack, Zakaria said that “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment.” Peaceful coexistence with Russia was treason –-but when an undeclared state of war launched by an unlawful attack that exposes America to lawful counterattacks, well, that is patriotism.
Trump has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to learn how to manipulate the political establishment. They have just taught him that he has a get-out-of-jail-free card: he need only launch an attack against another small country and all will be forgiven. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fell into line immediately, with an embarrassing volte-face). However, this is a dangerous lesson to teach a political strongman with no respect for the existing political conventions. He might take it further than President Reagan or the Bushes and use the state of war as an opportunity to crush his political opponents and destroy any remaining limitations on his authority. Trump is just the man to do it; only time will tell whether he will seize the opportunity. Trump has the world's largest military and the largest nuclear arsenal at his disposal. It is terrifying to think that he is learning that the more he uses it, the more popular and powerful he becomes.