Missile attack on Syria might be 'win-win' for embattled Trump

Thursday's missile attack on a Syrian airbase could be a clarifying moment for Trump, allowing him to deflect attention from the mounting crises and questions he faces at home and regain the moral high ground for the U.S. on the world stage.

Strike will allow U.S. president to deflect attention from domestic crises and regain moral high ground

U.S. President Donald Trump, known for advocating an isolationist 'America first,' policy, seemed to reverse himself Thursday when he ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase in retaliation for this week's chemical weapons attack against civilians that most attributed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The impact in Syria came at around 8:45 p.m. ET.

The impact globally likely won't be known for hours or days. Not until the sun comes up and the dust lifts near the Shayrat airbase in the civil war-scarred country's west, where more than 50 Tomahawk missiles struck Thursday night at the directive of U.S. President Donald Trump.

For now, Mideast and security experts say, it appears the tactical retaliatory strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — the first direct American military assault on Assad since the civil war began in 2011 — was a one-time attack, ordered a day after Assad unleashed a suspected sarin gas attack that killed an estimated 80 people and was denounced as a war crime by human rights groups.

But even in the fog of war, it could be a clarifying moment for Trump, a president who has over the course of the last two days reversed the non-interventionist doctrine that has been a hallmark of his foreign policy position since his campaign for president. 

Trump's action stands in opposition to Obama

The president, who spoke of being moved by images of dying children, accused Assad of having "choked the lives of helpless" Syrians.

"No child of God should ever suffer such harms," Trump told reporters in a statement 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."

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It was a sobering declaration from the president, even if it was politically self-serving one, said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

"A no-brainer. It was win-win for him in many ways," said Barkey, who argues Trump's action move works on many fronts.

Not only will the aggressive gunboat diplomacy rattle Assad, the Mideast specialist said, but it will intimidate the Syrian government against the further use of chemical weapons and possibly enable Trump to reclaim the moral high ground on the world stage, all the while allowing him to show that his actions are not dictated by the interests of the Russians, who have militarily supported Assad's war against opponents of his regime.

Donald Trump on airstrikes against Syria

7 years ago
Duration 2:51
President says strike on Syria in the 'vital national security interest' of the U.S.

"The main thing is Trump gets to say, 'Look, I did what [former president] Barack Obama couldn't do' because this has as much to do with Obama than anything else," Barkey said.

Obama, Trump's predecessor, declared in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line" warranting military force. But when the time came to turn moral outrage into action, Obama said he would seek approval from a skeptical Congress for a military strike in Syria.

That didn't come to pass as the Assad regime agreed to give up its stockpile of chemical weapons. (Whether that was ever true is now in question.)

Trump, who was at the time toying with the idea of running for president, posted several Tweets objecting to a strike in Syria in 2013.

Strike deflects attention from domestic crises

On Thursday, President Trump authorized the use of force without seeking congressional approval. He may have to answer for that later in Washington, but he will reap some short-term benefits.

Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, vocal critics of the president, lauded him in a statement on Thursday, saying it was time to expand the war to support Syria's rebel fighters against Assad's forces.

Trump, right, was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, shortly before he ordered the attack. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The military strike will also likely deflect attention from Trump's domestic crises, which include:

  • The recusal of House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes from the investigation into the Trump administration's ties to Russia on account of ethics concerns;
  • Infighting between the president's top White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law;
  • And the ejection of Bannon from the National Security Council. 
You cannot argue that the timing of this action, while having dinner with Xi, was quite smart.- Henri Barkey, director, Middle East program, Wilson Center

Then there's the matter of whom Trump was meeting with shortly before the missile strike was launched. On Thursday, he was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida on the first day of a two-day summit. Xi's visit at the time of the missile strike created a diplomatic situation that "boxed in" the Chinese, Barkey said, preventing a potentially public and personal diplomatic spat at the high-stakes meeting.

"The Chinese are not going to come out then and condemn the U.S. action," Barkey said. "So you cannot argue that the timing of this action, while having dinner with Xi, was quite smart."

Syria may wage propaganda war

The question of whether or not this action will cause escalation depends on the response of the Russians and Iranians, who have supported Assad's regime militarily.

In a Pentagon statement, defence officials stressed that Russians fighter jets were forewarned via an "established deconfliction" hotline to evacuate the strike zone.

"Whatever you do," Barkey said, "you don't want to kill Russians."

He noted that the likelihood of collateral damage from Tomahawk missiles is fairly small because of their sophisticated guidance systems. But just because civilians aren't likely to be near the Shayrat airfield doesn't mean a propaganda war won't be waged through Syrian state TV, Barkey said.

Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. warship in the Mediterranean Sea

7 years ago
Duration 0:45
Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. warship in the Mediterranean Sea

"It's very possible in the morning we're going to see pictures of dead or injured children, and they might say, 'See what the Americans did?'" he said.

One retaliatory option the Assad government has is to target some of the more than 1,000 American troops expected to be deployed in Syria, mainly near Raqqa, where they are to assist Syrian rebels fighting ISIS.

Attack might deter 'bad actors'

Regardless, the launching of "fire-and-forget-it" Tomahawk missiles was a raw display of American military might that can't be discounted for the deterring message it sends, said Jonathan Schanzer, a former counter-terrorism analyst with the U.S. Department of Treasury who now directs research at Washington think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracy.

A "proportional" U.S. military response in Syria was "long overdue" after six years of protracted civil war, he said.

Bad actors have had free rein in terms of regional actions, war crimes and such, so this might have had the effect of freezing them in their tracks.- Jonathan Schanzer, Foundation for Defence of Democracy

"Bad actors have had free rein in terms of regional actions, war crimes and such, so this might have had the effect of freezing them in their tracks … and that would be a welcome development," he said.

Though Schanzer said "it's not just early days, it's early hours," the attack signalled a major foreign-policy sea change from a presidency that indicated only a week earlier it had little interest in unseating the Syrian dictator.

"I don't believe Trump thought for a moment that the carnage in Syria, and war crimes by Assad, would prod him to action," he said. 

"Will this be one of those defining moments that could alter the course of his presidency? It will be interesting to find out."

The airstrike early Friday local time in Syria targeted the Shayrat military airbase in Homs. (CBC)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong