(Red) Lines Have Been Crossed: U.S. Intervention in Syria

By Madison Michna

On April 6, 2017, Donald Trump ordered a targeted military strike in Syria. This is the first time the United States has been directly involved in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

The United State’s military intervention in Syria could have further ramifications concerning relations between the two countries, the U.S.’s involvement in the war, and future policy regarding Syrian refugees.

Some background:

In 2012, President Obama made a famous “red line statement” in which he warned Syria that if there were signs that unconventional weapons were being used, they would face American military intervention. In 2013, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his military used chemical weapons to attack Syrian rebels, killing more than 1,400 civilians. This was the largest chemical attack in Syria and provoked international outrage.  President Obama sought a limited military strike to uphold the international ban on chemical weapons, however Congress was lukewarm at the prospect. Instead, Russia (key Syrian ally) proposed an international effort to document and destroy all stockpiles of Syria’s chemical weaponry, a task that was supposedly undertaken. Consequently, Syria joined the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013, which works to prohibit the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer, or use of chemical weapons by their member states.

What’s happening now:

The Assad regime is suspected to have used sarin gas against civilians on April 4, resulting in at least 88 deaths. Syrian and Russian governments have denied that Syrian forces were behind the attack and claimed that chemicals leaked from a rebels’ weapon depot after an airstrike. However, Western governments are dismissing this explanation and suspect the Assad regime to be behind it.

On April 6th, Donald Trump ordered the firing of 59 tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base that was suspected to have been the source of the chemical attacks. Donald Trump cited a violation of Syria’s obligation under the Chemical Weapons Convention as reasoning for the targeted military strike. This was the first time Washington has directly targeted the Syrian government since the war began in 2011. The Trump administration has signaled that no further military strikes would occur unless Assad uses chemical weapons against his people again. (Side note: the most recent chemical attack is one of 161 documented chemical attacks since the conflict began in Syria). This brings in international law and the issue of when it is lawful for one nation to attack another. Putin asserts that the U.S. missile strike was “an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext.” The United Nations Charter, which the U.S. has ratified, recognizes two justifications for using force on another country’s soil without its consent- the permission of a UN Security Council or a self-defense claim. It prohibits the use of military force for retaliation or for punishment.

It is unclear what America’s new strategy will be regarding Syria, however it is unlikely that this will mark a radical shift in U.S. policy. Trump is currently being urged to present a plan to Congress outlining his Syria strategy for the future.

Why did the U.S. militarily intervene?

The U.S. could have reacted to the chemical attack in Syria with three basic responses. They could have waited for certainty and validation that it was Assad’s government responsible for the attack and then issued a diplomatic statement condemning the behavior, accompanied with increased sanctions or some other form of punishment. They also could have pushed through the United Nations that this was a clear violation of international law, gotten a consensus, and intervened in Syria in a multilateral way. Or, they could have acted unilaterally militarily, which is what occurred.

Although there is not complete clarity as to why Trump ordered military intervention, it was likely a projection of military strength and correction of President Obama’s “red line” retreat in his failure to act following the 2013 chemical attack. In a presidency that has been marked with corruption allegations, federal investigations, and high unpopularity ratings, this was also a great way to consolidate support, of which Trump has been receiving from both Democrats and Republicans. Support has also been expressed from U.S. allies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  However, although this has been acclaimed by many it has people wondering if it was the proper response after six years of U.S. absence in the Syrian civil war.  

This could have also functioned as a way for Trump to send a message to other countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, displaying his willingness to use force. And finally, it could have possibly been an opportunity for Trump to distance himself from his relationship with Putin, a relationship that many Americans believe is too close for comfort.  


Al Jazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/04/strike-syria-mark-policy-shift-170407135727320.html

Al Jazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/envoy-threatens-syria-military-action-170407181709711.html

Al Jazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/lawmakers-call-trump-spell-syria-strategy-170408013224890.html

Al Jazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/us-missiles-syria-170407013424492.html

Deutsche Welle http://www.dw.com/en/report-more-than-160-chemical-attacks-documented-in-syria/a-19114798

NPR http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/07/522982477/russia-says-u-s-broke-international-law-in-striking-syria-citing-pretext

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/

The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/07/donald-trump-us-missile-strikes-syria-legal

The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/world/middleeast/obama-threatens-force-against-syria.html

The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/world/middleeast/syria-gas-attack.html?_r=0

The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/us/politics/military-force-presidential-power.html

The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/world/middleeast/werent-syrias-chemical-weapons-destroyed-its-complicated.html

US News https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2017-04-06/full-text-of-donald-trumps-statement-after-attack-on-syria




policyTeam Refugesyria, trump