Trump's Syria Missile Strike: Symbolic Show of Force or Prelude to Wider U.S. War?

Posted April 12, 2017

MP3 Interview with Paul Kawika Martin, communications and political director with Peace Action, conducted by Scott Harris


On April 6, President Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack a Syrian government air base in response to reports that Damascus had authorized an attack on civilians with a chemical nerve agent that killed more than 80 men, women and children, and injured hundreds of others. While Syria and Russia say the Syrian air force was not responsible for the attack, G-7 nations have called for an independent investigation by the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons. The U.S. missile strike, the first targeting the government of Bashar al-Assad, was greeted by many in the U.S. media with an orgy of praise – and declarations that Trump had now truly become the U.S. commander-in-chief.

But for many analysts, the decision to attack the Syrian air base, where the Pentagon says the chemical attack originated, was more of a symbolic gesture than any substantive change in U.S. policy on the Syrian civil war. Because the Russians and Syrians were given advance notice of the attack, there was little serious damage to Syria’s capacity to wage an air war against rebels. And the attack did nothing to paper over the Trump administration’s many contradictions in its policy toward the Syrian conflict. Just days before the chemical attack, Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that Washington was no longer pursuing regime change in Syria. But the administration’s views on this are now very different, depending on which official is asked.

Because the U.S. airstrikes in Syria, ordered without congressional authorization, distracted the nation from the many ongoing scandals faced by the unpopular Trump White House, there’s a suspicion that this may have played a role in the administration’s decision to use military force. Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with Paul Kawika Martin, communications and political director with Peace Action, who examines President Trump's decision to launch the missile strike, the ongoing carnage of the Syrian civil war and the international cooperation necessary to end it. [Rush transcript.]

PAUL KAWIKA MARTIN: We do need to note this decision was made within 48 hours, without discussions – at least as far was we know - with Congress, nor the approval of Congress, which would typically be in the Constitution, what we should do. So some of the things that all of us want to ask, really, is well why did the Trump administration do this? Of course, we're have to wait probably for the history books, to really know. But there are certain things we things that we could think about. One, the reasons why they said, Trump says he wanted to do it because he wanted to help babies out. I'm not sure that's the case. We could take all kinds of Syrian babies, refugees in, but we are currently actually blocking them from coming into the country.

If you look at the cuts to the domestic spending that he's proposing in this own budget, that affects American babies. I'm not buying the helping babies part. I think that there are other political reasons here at play, and we again, won't know until the history books are written. But one of the things could be that he didn't want to be "Obama." He has said over and over again that this was Obama's weakest moment, despite the fact, as we all know, he was critical of Obama when Obama first said that he was perhaps planning on using a similar strike a few years ago, which Peace Action also opposed that as well.

Could it be a political message to either China, North Korea, Iran, Russia or all four? Let's not forget that the Russian president was there at the time, and was this some sort of a message? We could think a little bit more Machiavellian. Is this a distraction from other news items that were going on? Let's not forget that serious questions were happening in the media as well as serious congressional oversight and investigation in the possibility of the Trump campaign somehow being in cahoots with Russia. We don't know the truth of that yet, but that was certainly what was in the media.

PAUL KAWIKA MARTIN: And the last thing was just a political ploy because Trump just had a major defeat trying to repeal and replace Obamacare. Didn't handle that very politically well. But look what has happened after this attack. He has not only galvanized the Republicans for the most part. There's certainly some libertarian Republicans that don't support this attack. But most of the Democrats also support this attack; they'll have other questions or strategic questions. So those are things I think we can think about. And again, will leave it up to your smart listeners and historians to figure out what the reason really was.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Given the fact that the ongoing war in Syria is so horrific and there's been such catastrophic loss of life in that country over the years, not to mention the refugee problem, and it is multi-sided war, with proxy forces from many different countries fighting it out in Syria based on religion, based on regional competition between powers and the like. What would be your recommendation for the most positive role that the United States could play in trying to end this war?

PAUL KAWIKA MARTIN: Well, continued pressure to bring all parties to the table to continue political talks. Now, if you look at, again, I used the word civil war very lightly here, but if you look historically at civil wars, the median time that civil wars end if 15 years. So we are actually a little bit ahead of the curve in already being in political talks. They've happened, you know, a number of times; we've had a cease-fire here and a cease-fire there. It is happening glacially, but the U.S. government can be a positive role in 1)making sure that there's political pressure put on all parties to come to a political solution. That's Number One.

Number Two, let's not be supporting behind the scenes, either various rebel forces and take into the consideration of the Syrian people. So part of it is for us to keep our heavy hands of those chess pieces that are moving all around that region and looking at some of our allies and getting them to stop certain things, that is, actually confronting Saudi Arabia, for example. And take the money that – instead of building missiles, we could certainly be helping refugees out. We could be supporting humanitarian needs that are happening on the ground right now. And lastly, we need to look into the future. And look at how to keep these things from happening in the first place. And it's very clear that the alleviation of poverty, helping people feel that they're free and able to make free choices. Those long-term investments are what's going to keep us out of these types of wars in the first place and those are the couple of things that people can invest time in.

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