On Thursday night, two US Navy warships fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons earlier this week against civilians. For months, Donald Trump has espoused a hands-off approach to intervening in the Middle Eastern country’s six-year-long civil war, yet it took just 24 hours for the president to reverse course and launch America’s first military action against the Syrian government. But in the context of Trump’s affinity for cable news where the images of the chemical strike were discussed and shown, the attack on Syria starts to make a bit more sense.
It started earlier this week, when the small northern town of Khan Sheikhou was hit with chemical strikes, specifically with sarin gas. Sarin is a nerve agent, in the same category as VX gas and other deadly chemicals banned by international law. It kills by blocking the signals passing between your muscles and your brain. Once a muscle seizes, it cannot relax, leading to violent spasms and, most commonly, asphyxiation due to a locked diaphragm. Assad’s attack killed more than 80 people, at least 27 of them young children, and injured some 500 Syrians of all ages.
“It’s the worst thing you can imagine. It’s a horrible way to die,” says Beth Van Schaack, a human rights and war crimes specialist at Stanford’s Center for International Security & Cooperation. “That can’t help but touch a person.”
The images from the chemical strike filled newspapers and television coverage all week. Trump, whose fealty to cable news is well known, surely saw them. On Wednesday, he condemned the attack. On Thursday, after the airstrike by the US, the president, speaking from Mar-Lago, revisited the imagery in his statement, saying, “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow a brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror.”
The Pentagon almost certainly formulated the attack plan well before this week. The US has maintained forces in the region for years, and Syria emerged as point of possible intervention during the Obama administration. But the attack underscores a key difference between the two presidents. Where Obama was deliberate to the point of inaction for several years, Trump upended his own stance within days. Set aside whether the airstrike was militarily expedient; that it happened at all underscores the malleability of Trump’s positions.
“I support stopping Assad’s atrocities,” former Trump presidential challenger Evan McMullin tweeted. “But it’s unnerving that Trump changed his position on striking Syria 180 degrees in only 24 hours.”
Yet Assad’s chemical strike forced Trump’s hands for other reasons too. He had long lambasted Obama for drawing a “red line” over chemical weapons and failing to follow through when Assad used them in 2013, and prominent Republicans have vocally supported intervention.
“The United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs,” senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain said in a statement Thursday night.
Just as media saturation could have provided motivation for the strike, it also may have informed how it was carried out. The US limited its attack to al-Sharyat airbase in western Syria, stressing that it was the source of this week’s chemical weapons attack. “The US intelligence community assesses that aircraft from Shayrat conducted the chemical weapons attack on April 4,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.”
For a president driven as much by narrative as by strategy, his move effectively serves both. It makes him look like a man of action, while limiting any potential reverberations by specifically striking Assad’s chemical arsenal. “I can’t imagine that Russia wants its allies/puppets to be engaging in chemical weapons attacks,” says Van Schaack. “The whole international community may be relieved that someone acted, and acted in a way that invokes a deterrent effect against further attacks.”
The message carries the added benefit of playing to both his base and, potentially, the despot for whom it was intended.
“As far as symbolism goes, we thought we were just in for another round of denunciations,” says Linda Robinson, an international policy analyst with the Rand Corporation. “But 59 Tomahawks is a very strong message.”
The Day After
What wins the moment, though, doesn’t always benefit the long term—a lesson Trump has learned during his ongoing campaign of using bluster to win the day. Assad has for years used conventional weapons against civilians. What happens when he does so again? And how much escalation can the US stomach should Assad turn again to sarin, or chlorine gas? And that’s before you even consider whether Trump had the authority to order Thursday night’s strike in the first place.
“What was purpose of strike? How much did this cost? Was Assad a threat to US homeland? How does this achieve peace?” California Democratic representative Ted Lieu, a frequent Trump critic, said on Twitter. Republican senator Rand Paul echoed the complaint in a statement demanding that Trump seek congressional authorization.
The optimistic outlook is that the move will force the Trump administration to finally outline a coherent foreign policy.
“What they are going to have to reckon with is that words matter, and they are going to have to articulate what their approach is,” says Robinson. “We are still waiting on this administration’s policy toward Syria, and indeed a formal statement of its counter-ISIS policy, and both of those are really bound up in also what its Russia policy is.”
One might think 59 Tomahawk missiles might have firmed up those lines. Instead, it seems designed to have fleeting effect.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “There has been no change in that status.”
Additional reporting by Emily Dreyfuss.