Updated: 10:31 a.m.
President Trump made the biggest move of his presidency so far Thursday night — he struck Syrian military targets after an apparent chemical weapons attack allegedly ordered by Syria’s Bashar Assad against his own people.
Trump — who said it was in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons” — can use this politically to paint himself as a strong leader who will act decisively. The move also came at a low point in his presidency, which has been marred lately by infighting in his White House and a lack of action on his domestic agenda. Between this Syria action, which his team is painting as a leadership moment, and the Senate’s confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Trump hopes to get his presidency on track.
But the strike leaves more questions than answers, like how does it square with Trump’s “America First” policy; does this mean a change in approach toward Syria and Russia; and, most importantly, what’s next? Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are supporting the decision, even if with reservations on the Democratic side. As it is, the legal justification for the bombing is murky — as are all unilateral military actions by an American president without congressional approval. And, any wider effort would seem to demand action from Congress.
We asked NPR reporters, from the political team to the international desk, to explore those and some other key questions below:
1. Is this a one-off or is there more to come and what would that mean?
Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent: There’s no indication of further action. It was a narrowly focused mission. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is advocating for taking out the entire Syrian air force, but there’s no indication the Trump administration will do that. The White House is likely to forge ahead with trying to defeat ISIS as the focus in Syria — with the help of the Turkish arm of the Kurds. The political solution that has been talked about is turning Syria into a confederated state, split into various parts only partially governed by Assad.
This action is a feel-good kind of thing for Trump. Blow away aircraft; you don’t kill any Russians, and that’s it. It’s good optics, like the Carrier deal. But there’s a big question here. Trump saw those pictures of children suffering and killed from the attack, and everyone was obviously disgusted. But if you’re someone in Syria, you might be asking, you got really upset over roughly 80 people being killed, but if they hit me with a conventional bomb, that’s OK? Thousands have already been killed and millions displaced.
2. Does this limited bombing then change Assad’s actions?
Michelle Kelemen, State Department correspondent: That’s a hard one to answer since he has crossed so many red lines without facing any consequences.
Remember, President Obama threatened action if Assad used chemical weapons. Chemical weapons were used, and Obama ultimately didn’t act militarily. Trump said this attack was “beyond a red line.” But, as Will Dobson, NPR’s senior supervising editor for the International Desk points out, what if this was a provocation from Assad?
Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian opposition negotiator and former spokesperson for the Syrian National Council, in fact, told Kelemen in a story that aired Wednesday that the apparent use of chemical weapons by Assad was exactly that — a “provocation and a test.”
On whether this will change Assad’s actions, Dobson says ask the Russians. Whether or not it changes Assad’s action may be determined by Moscow, who will be asked to rein him in and are best positioned to do so.
3. Speaking of the Russians, they have been harshly critical of this move by the United States. What does their response mean and are there potential ramifications for the relationship with Moscow?
Lucian Kim, NPR Moscow correspondent: The Russians cutting off the “deconfliction” line is pretty serious. (The U.S. and Russia set up a line between the Pentagon and Moscow to make sure they get out of each other’s way in Syria, to alert the other if they will be operating on turf where the other country is.) Moscow viewed it as an accomplishment when they got it. It put them on a level with the Pentagon, where they were talking. It was a big shift. At the beginning of Russia’s getting involved there, even to have one-on-one-contact with the U.S. was a prize. But now they cut that off.
Their response was quite tough. What does it mean? The rhetorical cease-fire is officially over. Their response was really fast. They had a statement up at 9 a.m. in five different languages. They never act that fast. They’re really, really, really upset. They had such high hopes when Trump was elected.
4. Secretary of State Tillerson is slated to go to Moscow next week. He’s someone who got a medal of “friendship” from Russian President Putin, but is now talking tough about Russia’s role in all this. How much pressure is he facing and can he prove his mettle on this upcoming trip?
Kelemen: Already, U.S. officials said that the chemical weapons attack was going to “cloud” Tillerson’s discussions. He was going to explore the possibility of cooperating with Russia in the fight against ISIS. Now, the Russians have cut off the “deconfliction” talks with the U.S. There was already something of a showdown at the United Nations Friday.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley called the bombing a “measured step” but warned that the U.S. is “prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.” Syria’s ambassador said it “strongly condemns the act of aggression,” and Russia’s ambassador called on the U.S. “to immediately cease its aggression” and instead to join efforts to find a political settlement in Syria and combat terrorism.
Russia, which as Kim notes, had high hopes for the U.S. relationship, is in a bind. Dobson points out that Russia was not only upset with the U.S., but with Assad for carrying out the apparent chemical weapons attack.
5. Given the tensions, was it the right thing to tell the Russians beforehand?
Kelemen: The U.S. had to let the Russians know because there were apparently some Russian service members there. One of the arguments in the past for not striking Syria was that it would draw the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia.
Dobson: Yes, agree with Michele. Russian troops are intermingled with Syrian troops. It was essential to warn the Russians or risk escalating the strike into a wider conflict. Plus, if you want Moscow to assist in any way, you must give them this notice. Shortly before the strike, Putin’s spokesman said that Russia’s support for Assad wasn’t “unconditional.”
6. How does this change Trump’s calculus going forward?
This is a key question, because being interventionist runs counter to much of how Trump campaigned. Not only did he say in 2013 that Obama should not attack Syria, but he said of Hillary Clinton in a statement on his website during the 2016 campaign:
“We’re spending $6 trillion dollars on wars in the Middle East, while our own country falls into total disrepair. Now Hillary wants to start a shooting war in Syria, in conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia, which could lead to World War 3. As her own team has said in WikiLeaks emails, she has ‘terrible’ instincts.”
On Thursday night, Clinton called for bombing the airfields from where the chemical attacks were allegedly launched. And that’s exactly what Trump authorized.
Tamara Keith, NPR White House correspondent: It’s unclear how this will affect Trump’s calculus. His ideology was not only more isolationist on the campaign trail, but as recently as Tuesday of this week, he told the Building Trades Unions National Legislative Conference: “We enriched foreign countries at the expense of our own country, the great United States of America. But those days are over. I’m not — and I don’t want to be — the president of the world. I’m the president of the United States. And from now on, it’s going to be America First.”
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR national security correspondent, makes a similar point: How do you square Thursday night’s action with Trump’s unilateralist, “America First” doctrine? This was a line from his big address to Congress on Feb. 28: “America must put its own citizens first, because only then can we truly make America great again.”
Clearly, Trump, though, was affected by the pictures that were sprawled across cable news.
Kelemen: Tillerson’s argument was that if the U.S. didn’t act, it would normalize the use of chemical weapons.
One big, open question that NPR’s national security correspondent David Welna asks is why the U.S. did not enlist any other allies in this strike. Trump spoke to European allies who backed the action, but Britain, for example, “said it would not participate if asked,” the Washington Post reported.
What about Trump’s refugee ban? Does this change anything with that? No. As NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley points out, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters before the strike that the president supports the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria.
“Every country’s No. 1 priority is to its own people and the protection of them,” Spicer said. “We’ve got to do what we can to make sure that as we seek to root out ISIS and terrorism throughout the country — throughout the world, rather, that we don’t, at the same time, do things that would bring those same threats to our country.”
Spicer didn’t respond to an email following up after the strike if Trump’s view has changed at all.
7. Stepping back, was this lawful? Even if it was a one-off, what is the justification for it?
On the whole, Democrats and Republicans supported Trump’s move. But almost everyone in Congress said Trump would have to go to Congress for approval of wider action. And, as NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis said on the NPR podcast Up First, Trump would almost certainly want to get that approval from Congress since it has to appropriate funds.
“Assad’s use of chemical weapons to slaughter civilians was a heinous crime as well as a violation of international norms and Syria’s commitments to give up chemical weapons,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement Friday. “It could not go unpunished.”
Davis: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Good Morning America Friday morning that the president had the legal authority within the 2014 deal struck with Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
“He was dealing with exigent circumstances, and as the commander in chief, not only does he have the right, he has an obligation to act,” Rubio said.
He also said on CNN and Fox that American personnel in the region could have been at risk. But Bowman points out that U.S. troops are not anywhere near that area; they’re many miles away, just north of Raqqa, where there are Marines, Green Berets and Army Rangers.
Bowman: The legal rationale is the responsibility-to-protect concept used in Libya and the Balkans. Essentially, that says, if a country sees genocide or slaughter, it should do what’s necessary to protect innocent civilians. But an international body is supposed to approve. The U.N. Security Council signed off in Libya and NATO signed off in the Balkans.
NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson: Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard professor and former George W. Bush lawyer, outlined some of the technicalities and legal language on the Lawfare blog. But the bottom line is this key paragraph:
“I can imagine the smile on Trump administration officials’ faces when they figured out that they would both enforce a red line that Obama wouldn’t and rely on Obama administration legal thinking to provide cover for doing so.”
Asked for what legal guidance it had given the White House or what the president is relying on, the Justice Department didn’t divulge any information.
“The Department of Justice generally does not comment on what advice the Office of Legal Counsel may or may not have given to its clients,” Ian D. Prior, principal deputy director of public affairs, told Johnson.
8. Perhaps most importantly, does this action by Trump change the prospects for peace?
Kelemen: The opposition negotiators certainly hope so. They’ve been calling for this for a long time. Kodmani, for example, suggested that the Trump administration strike the base from which Syria launched the chemical attack. “A strike against one military target, maybe that airport from which that aircraft took off to go and bomb and spread chemical weapons,” Kodmani said, “I think that might be one way of saying this cannot continue.”
Dobson: Unlikely — especially if there is no follow-up or it remains a limited action with symbolic value.
Reporting from Syria, NPR’s Alison Meuse found a mixed reaction to the strikes. She spoke with one woman who said “our feelings today are mixed between happiness and sadness.”
A man who lives a few miles outside the town that produced the most graphic images, said the imam of a local mosque said the strikes “were a joke,” intended “just to save face. They were strikes that were not fruitful — because today, Russia is still killing [Syrian] civilians.”
Russia, along with the Syrian military, is operating in the country and carrying out airstrikes daily.
Note: Some other key, unanswerable questions to ponder, as NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence raises:
-What happens with the next strike against civilians with conventional weapons like crude barrel bombs?
-Did Trump’s strike weaken Assad? Does weakening Assad prolong the civil war?
-Does this help relations with Turkey and Sunni Arab states? How does this affect the Turkish stance toward the U.S. alliance with Kurdish fighters in Syria?
-Is there expected blowback from Iran or Hezbollah, for example, through Shi’ite militias near U.S. troops in Mosul, Iraq?