On April 4, at least 70 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack against a residential neighborhood in Syria. The attack marked a new twist in the brutal yearslong civil war, which began in 2011 after peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad escalated into rebellion. It has since become a complex conflict involving sectarian violence, the rise of the Islamic State and the emergence of a proxy war between major international players, including the United States and Russia, which is allied with the Assad government.
Assad has repeatedly used brutal total war tactics, including the use of chemical weapons, to terrorize civilians resistant to his government’s control. According to Human Rights First, this constitutes a war crime and a violation of international law. Former President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria was that the use of chemical weapons would draw “a red line” which, if crossed, would trigger United States military intervention. However, following a 2013 chemical weapons attack in which 1,300 civilians were killed, Obama sought permission from Congress to retaliate but was met with little support. The United States then made a deal with Russia to help remove the remaining chemical weapons from Assad’s control.
In response to the most recent use of chemical weapons, President Donald Trump acted decisively, firing 59 missiles to the Syrian air base from which the chemical weapons attack was initiated without getting permission from Congress. Trump had previously campaigned on an “America First” foreign policy. As recently as March 30, his administration’s stance, reinforced in individual statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, was not to intervene in Syria. He also tweeted in 2013 that Obama should not intervene in Syria and then proceeded to blame Obama’s lack of intervention for the continued violence in Syria.
Trump is not the only politician with oscillating opinions on Syria. When Obama requested authorization from Congress in 2013, many Republican lawmakers were slow to offer him support. Now, many of those same lawmakers back Trump’s military action. There is a bipartisan belief, however, that any further actions taken in Syria should be approved by Congress.
On April 11, American intelligence agencies debunked Russian claims that the chemical weapons attack could not have been perpetrated by Assad. This bold stance on Russia indicates another shift in Trump’s foreign policy agenda, which was largely characterized as Russia-friendly during his campaign and early presidency.
Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on April 12 to discuss the conflict in Syria following the U.S. missile strike.