President Trump’s decision to launch a cruise missile strike against Syria is not entirely the result of seeing a Syrian man cradle his dead twin babies who were killed in a chemical attack allegedly launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There is little doubt that the chemical attack on ordinary citizens may have motivated the launch of US cruise missiles but it is the timing of the US attack that causes the observer to pause and re-evaluate initial impressions.
Long before he became president, Mr Trump made public his antipathy towards the US becoming involved in Syria’s on-going civil war, tweeting on 30 August 2013, ‘If Obama attacks Syria and innocent civilians are hurt and killed, he and the US will look very bad!’ As if to underscore his distaste for military action against Damascus, he followed that up with, ‘The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!’ Similar tweets demonstrated his reluctance to let the US become involved in Syria.
While those tweets have been used to criticise his current action, it must be borne in mind that it was just as likely Mr Trump’s lack of confidence in then-President Obama’s ability and resolve to “get things done” that prompted those tweets. This perception of his may be seen in other tweets on the same issue, tweeting on the same day, ‘How bad has our “leader” made us look on Syria. Stay out of Syria, we don’t have the leadership to win wars or even strategize.’ Just in case his point was missed, he tweeted, ‘President Obama’s weakness and indecision may have saved us from doing a horrible and very costly (in more ways than money) attack on Syria!’
Be that as it may, the US attack on the Shayrat airbase from which the chemical attack was launched had at least as much to do with realpolitik as it did with punishing a dictator for committing a crime against his own people. Trump’s motivations could include further unsettling a Chinese administration that remains undecided as to how to treat the new, brash US president, indicating to Moscow that it is prepared to counter its power plays in the Middle East and elsewhere, indicating to the American people that there is a definite distinction to be made between himself and his immediate predecessor and, importantly, sending a message to Iran that its days of riding rough-shod over the agreements it has signed are over.
Trump has stated, time and again, that the nuclear agreement that President Obama entered into with Iran was badly flawed. Iran’s seemingly deliberate acts to violate the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that it entered into with the US, the other members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany are now being questioned by the Trump Administration. Resolution 2231 unequivocally ‘calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.’ Yet Iran conducted a test of a medium-range ballistic missile on 29 January 2017, just days after Trump took office. This is, by any measure, a deliberate provocation. It has also been reported that Tehran has been supplying arms to the rebel Houthi fighters in Yemen. Tehran has used speed boats to harass US naval ships, leading a US warship to fire warning shots at them on another occasion and, on yet another occasion, filmed captured US sailors on their knees before Iranian military personnel.
Iran would have done well to pay heed to Trump’s tweet of 3 February, in which he said, ‘Iran is playing with fire’ and ‘they don’t appreciate how kind President Obama was to them. Not me!’ His attack on the Shayrat airfield in Syria would have served notice to Tehran that the days of being able to take liberties with its agreements with the US, coupled with the tendency to take liberties with the US in general, are fast reaching an end, if they have not already done so. His use of the US’s largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan, virtually on Iran’s doorstep, could only serve to emphasise his resolve and ability to follow up his words with, in this case, military action. The fact that his Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis, who was Commander of CENTCOM, also tweeted that Iran is the world’s largest sponsor of state terrorism, ought to cause the Ayatollahs in Tehran a degree of concern. Iran has well and truly been put on notice.
Mr Trump was likely affected enough by the photograph of the Syrian father holding the lifeless bodies of his twin babies in his arms to order the strike on Syria. It is unlikely, however, that that was his sole motivator.