The Chilling Messages Trump Just Sent With His Syria Strike

The images of dead and suffering children following Tuesday’s gas attack by Syria (with Russian complicity) on its own people were tragic and compelling. Syria was believed to have used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin, killing more than 80 Syrian civilians.

The chemical attack by Syria happened only days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump made statements indicating that the US had no interest in interfering in Syrian events and that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power was an internal Syrian matter with which the US had no interest in interfering. (See: Rubio: It’s no coincidence that Syria gas attack happened after ‘concerning’ Tillerson comments).

Last night Fifty-nine US Tomahawk missiles were launched against the Syrian government-controlled Shayrat airbase in central Syria. U.S. officials said that the airbase was the originating point for the military planes behind Tuesday’s chemical bombing. The Russians and Syrians were forewarned of the coming airbase attack by the United States, and had ample opportunity to remove their aircraft and personnel. Reports are that at least seven people were nonetheless killed by the US attack.

Both North Korea and Syria present serious situations, for which both the Bush and Obama administrations never found reasonable positive solutions. Both are situations for which an American military response could, in some circumstances, be appropriate and necessary. You can’t really judge yesterday’s attack without placing it into the perspective of what it was really trying to accomplish, what else is going on at the time, and as part of a bigger long term picture of next steps and consequences as the dominoes inevitably start falling.

So let’s place the events into a bit of context: The attack came 100 years to the day from the date that America entered World War 1 (See: Could ‘America First’ Lead to War?). It came on the same day that Trump’s previous presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton, also made a public call for the bombing of Syrian airbases (See: Hillary Clinton calls for U.S. to bomb Syrian air fields). It came on the heels of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un firing off another intermediate-range ballistic missile; and Xi Jinping, the President of China, arriving in the United States for a summit meeting to discuss North Korea (among other issues) with Donald Trump. It came on the day after Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council principals’ committee. Very significantly, it came during a week in which Trump’s approval ratings fell to just 35%, an historic low for a president in his first months in office (See: President Trump’s Approval Ratings Just Hit Another Low).

What did the attack actually accomplish on behalf of the victims? It did destroy assets at one airbase that Syria could use to launch air raids that would drop bombs on its own people. Not a bad thing, but Syria has others, and the airbase was back in service within 24 hours. It didn’t destroy Syria’s ability to deploy chemical weapons. It might possibly discourage Syria from the further use of chemical weapons, but it is highly unlikely that it will stop Syria from continued bombing on its own citizens, or that it will stop Russia from assisting them in that regard. It provides no measure of relief to the victims, nor does it signal any change of heart on behalf of the Trump administration in their attempts to prevent immigration from the Muslims who are the victims of Assad’s regime. It caused Russia to suspend an agreement with the US that prevented incidents and ensured flight safety in Syria.

For Donald Trump the rationale for any such use of force is immediately suspect because of:

  1. His apparent need to (and history of) fabricating lies to try to divert attention from the Russia investigation;
  2. His overall dishonesty and failure to be truthful with the American people on an hourly basis;
  3. His bullying behavior and repeated failure to address serious issues with any degree of intellectual depth or subtlety;
  4. His poll numbers are in a tailspin. Trump has made it quite clear in the past, projecting his own negative tendencies upon others, that he views such a circumstance as justification to launch an air strike to bolster political standing; and
  5. Because, with only a couple of exceptions, he surrounds himself with incompetent and inexperienced people as advisors, some of whom have publicly stated that they seek global war as a mechanism to weaken our democracy and move America in the direction of fascism.

One should also keep in mind that Trump spoke out publicly during Obama’s administration, strongly objecting to any military action in Syria and telling him that he (Obama) would need congressional approval to take military action, since US interests were not being immediately threatened. Obama tried to get approval from congress for such action, and the Republican-led congress refused to grant it. It is tragically amusing that so many of the Republicans who spoke out against Obama taking such action after the earlier, and much larger chemical attack during Obama’s term, suddenly have changed their mind in the past 24 hours. This article highlights the astounding contradictions: Paul Ryan 2013: Syrian strikes would look weak. Paul Ryan 2017: Assad must be held accountable.

All of these factors make Trump’s conduct suspect indeed. Albert Nurick spoke what many Americans were thinking when he wrote on Facebook this morning:

And Congressman Jared Hoffman wrote:

Two excellent articles providing perspective on the Syria attack were published this morning in The Atlantic. Conor Friedeersdorf contributed Trump’s Syria Strike Was Unconstitutional and Unwise: The military intervention solved nothing, while bypassing Congress, betraying the president’s non-interventionist supporters, and highlighting his hypocrisy and David Frum highlighted Seven Lessons From Trump’s Syria Strike: The attack raises a series of questions about the president’s approach to America’s political processes and institutions, noting in depth seven key lessons we can learn about Trump from his actions (be sure to read the article for an in-depth explanation of each one):

  1. Trump’s Words Mean Nothing
  2. Trump Does Not Give Reasons
  3. Trump Does Not Care About Legality
  4. Trump Disregards Government Processes
  5. Trump Has No Allies
  6. Trump Envisions No End State
  7. Trump Is Lucky in His Opponents

Let’s talk about the messages that Trump attempted to send to each of the relevant parties, and what they likely heard in return.

Towards North Korea, Trump is trying to send the message that he is a tough guy and that North Korea had better get in line because the United States is a country they don’t want to mess with. But Kim Jong-un will likely interpret Trump’s conduct as further impetus for him to make a nuclear first strike. If Kim Jong-un wanted the world to leave him and North Korea alone, all he’d have to do is stop building nuclear weapons and trying to develop the means to launch them.  The nuclear capability he is building is designed for a first strike. If he knows Trump is likely to try to destroy his capability to do so, it only increases his urgency to launch his weapons before they are destroyed. Following the Syria attack, North Korea in fact issued a statement saying that that US attack in Syria provided further justification of their continued development of nuclear weapons and launch systems. (See: North Korea slams U.S. missile attack on Syria, says it justifies nuclear program.)

Towards China, Trump is trying to send the message that he is not afraid to take action, and as a warning towards their support of North Korea. But instead, China will likely see that the US is too preoccupied elsewhere to also effectively address North Korea, and it provides China further confirmation that Trump’s attempts at foreign policy are centered on disjoint impulsive actions rather than a commitment to any coherent polity.

Towards Russia, who was complicit with Syria in the chemical attack, Trump has had little harsh words, and he gave them notice of the attack so they could remove their planes from the airfield. Russia will make noise objecting to what happened of course, but they have suffered little harm to themselves or their interests, and they will continue their support of Assad and their efforts to influence US public opinion through alternate-reality disinformation campaigns.

Towards the Syrian government, it may give them pause to continue the use of chemical weapons, but as long as they have support from Russia and Iran, it is unlikely we will see any material change of course from Assad. Should further US efforts actually manage to dispose of Assad, then it will unfortunately provide an opportunity for ISIS to seize control of Syria.

Towards the Syrian rebels, there is little hope of a better life or of relief from attack by the Syrian government or from ISIS, or of the US providing them a path for safe sanctuary through immigration. They will likely see the airstrike for exactly what it was… an attempt by an American president to use their situation as a means to bolster his personal standing in a manner that accrues them no real benefits whatsoever.

Towards America, Trump is trying to send a message that he is not Russia’s puppet, that he is a strong president who is not afraid to take action, and that he is capable of WINNING at something that he undertakes, all while diverting attention from the Russia investigation.

Some American’s will buy into this 100%. I saw this attitude being shared by some on Facebook this morning, where a friend wrote:

“No longer a nation of lions guarded by lambs, I take great comfort in knowing that honorable people are back in charge of American military might. #PrayForSyria”

Others will perhaps look deeper at what is going on, and prove not so gullible.

They will see that Trump is also sending a message that none of his commitments, no matter how frequently stated, should be taken seriously. It paints the picture of an impulsive man having access to nuclear codes, and it encourages those on all sides to seek ways to manipulate him in their direction.

Prior to the US attack, there was substantial online chatter, particularly on alternate-reality right-wing conspiracy-theory web sites, and on Facebook and Twitter (using the hashtag #SyriaHoax) espousing the “false flag” theory that it was not Assad who unleashed the chemical weapons on the Syrian rebels, but rather it was other parties (sometimes referred to as the “deep state”) who had done so, with the intent of deflecting blame on Assad and thereby encouraging America to take action against him. There is absolutely zero evidence supporting such conspiracy theory conjecture, nor is it plausible in accounting for the circumstances that occurred. Further, research into how the #SyriaHoax hashtag began spreading across Twitter seems to show that it originated from Russia. It appears to likely be yet another attempt on the part of Russia to mislead and influence the American public with alternate-reality nonsense. (See: Conspiracy claims that Syrian gas attack was ‘false flag’ are unproven.)

This is one of the few times Trump has chosen to disregard Russian-inspired alternate-reality right-wing conspiracy-theory propaganda. One hopes (without much confidence) that it is the start of a trend.

Read my article from earlier this week for my perspective on North Korea, which remains a bigger possible issue in terms of potential global carnage: Let’s Play Dominoes: Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Kim Jong-un and a Date With Nuclear War. And if you find my articles to be insightful, please help by sharing them on Facebook and Twitter.

Author’s supplemental note: After this article was originally published, I added the quote from Congressman Jared Hoffman, expanded my explanation regarding North Korea, corrected a statement with regards to the damage done to Syria’s airbase, and fixed a few typos. I also strongly recommend Keith Olbermann’s perspective on the matter: The Media Fell for Trump’s Syria Stunt.


Cliff Kurtzman
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