The United States fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military airbase Friday morning in retaliation for a chemical attack against civilians said to have been perpetrated by the Syrian government.
The missiles appeared to have been launched without much planning or coordination with international allies, worrying analysts that President Donald Trump may drag the U.S. into a larger, global conflict despite his campaign-era promises to avoid costly U.S. military intervention abroad.
Shortly after news of the attacks broke, the Department of Defense confirmed that the U.S. military had launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at Shayrat Airfield from what the Pentagon told reporters were warships in the East Mediterranean. A Pentagon press release said the strike was “a proportional response to Assad’s heinous act,” referring to the chemical attack that killed scores of people and injured hundreds in the rebel-held western Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s administration has denied responsibility for the attack. Both Damascus and Moscow, the Syrian government’s longtime ally, reportedly blamed rebels for the attack.
“The U.S. intelligence community assesses that aircraft from Shayrat conducted the chemical weapons attack on April 4,” the Pentagon press release reads. “The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.”
It was not immediately clear how many — if any — casualties there had been in the U.S.’s attack Friday. Russian authorities had been notified the attack would transpire, the Pentagon said, adding that “U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”
Following the airstrike, Trump offered a rare televised address.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump went on. “As a result the refugee crisis continues to deepen an the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
The Trump administration has attempted, in two executive orders, to block Syrian nationals — as well as citizens of six other Muslim-majority nations, several of which the U.S. has bombed in recent years — from entering the U.S. Those bids have been repeatedly blocked by federal judges, who say that they are unconstitutional and discriminatory.
Before his election, Trump repeatedly warned then-President Barack Obama against attacking Syria and miring the U.S. in another devastating, costly war. “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!” he tweeted in 2013, following an earlier deadly chemical attack.
Analysts of the Arab world expressed concern that the U.S. offensive had been hasty and ill-prepared.
“There’s a riddle in Syria,” says Osama Abi-Mershed, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and a noted scholar on the region. “Do you bomb the Syrian regime and help [the Islamic State] or do you bomb [the Islamic State] and help the Syrian regime [which means helping] Iran and Hezbollah? Obama solved the riddle by not doing anything.”
Karim Emile Bitar, director of Paris-based international relations think tank the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques, agrees that Trump’s actions appear to be dangerously reactionary.
“Projecting strength abroad fits into [Trump’s] temper and into the Jacksonian tradition of foreign policy that he has also embraced domestically — populism, anti-elitism,” Bitar says. “However, it does not seem that these strikes are part of any global Syria strategy.”
“There is a constant back-and-forth in U.S. foreign policy,” Bitar adds. “Obama spent eight years trying to show that he was no George [W.] Bush, and now Trump wants to show that he’s no Barack Obama. So this oscillation between maximalism and isolationism is pretty strange and does not help U.S. interests, because, in both cases, there is rarely a clear vision and a clear discussion of the stakes.”
Abi-Mershed says that the attack may resound far beyond that single airfield in western Syria, particularly since Russia has — together with China — blocked multiple United Nations resolutions to intervene in the ongoing bloody Syrian Civil War.
“Now the parties involved are going to be the forces on the ground in Syria, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi, the GCC [Arab Gulf Countries], Turkey, the Kurds, the European Union, Russia, and the U.S,” he says. “If you look at a list of all parties involved, were any of them consulted or was this entirely unilateral? If so, this is very dangerous.”
The outcome could have repercussions that had been unfathomable — particularly under the administration of a president who had promised a smaller footprint in the Middle East and internationally.
“What is happening now smacks of superpower confrontation,” Abi-Mershed says. “It might be possible that we’re getting into another World War.”
Hours after the attack, the hashtag #WWIII began trending on Twitter.