On Tuesday, a poison gas attack was launched against Khan Sheikhoun, a Syrian town said to be controlled by forces in active rebellion against the Syrian government. Bashar al-Assad, the hereditary Syrian strongman, is suspected of ordering his forces to drop nerve gas bombs on the town from airplanes. Assad, an ophthalmologist and son of the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, denies responsibility. His regime is supported by Russia, who has some bases and limited forces in Syria. In addition to Isis, disparate domestic groups, with aid from outside of Syria, are engaging in open rebellion against the Assad regime, and the town of Khan Sheikhoun, like most of the surrounding Idlib province, was controlled by one of those factions.
Witnesses are reported to have described a fixed-wing airplane dropping bombs on the town; the gas attack left nearly 100 people dead. Warplanes were said to have later bombed the town clinic where victims were receiving what treatment they could, and there were reports that the town, which is 37 miles from the Turkish border and 60 miles south of Aleppo, was attacked Friday by a “government or Russian” airplane. None of the rebel forces are known to have manned aviation capability. Experts have suggested that the chemical nerve agent was sarin, an especially deadly weapon of mass destruction.
Whether Assad personally ordered the attack, which was clearly intended to break the rebels’ grip on the town, is immaterial. Cellphone video was uploaded shortly after the attack, showing the horrific aftermath of the heinous atrocity. Whether the attacking airplanes were Russian or Syrian is, likewise, irrelevant. The attack could not have occurred without Assad’s assent, and he has clearly shown little reluctance to use poison gas, which is banned by an international accord to which he himself is a signatory, against unarmed civilian populations.
Former President Obama, in August, 2012, issued his infamous “cross a red line” warning to Assad when it became clear that he had used gas; shortly after the president’s admonition, Assad again attacked civilians with poison gas. Obama took no action after that attack. Based on known precepts of human nature, it stands to reason that Assad concluded he could act with impunity in the absence of retributive action from America or the West.
Man’s worst tendencies come out in civil wars, since the emotions involved in such conflicts run very high. Governments under attack have been known to take extreme actions to defend their power; rebellious forces will reply in kind. So the nature of the conflict in the first place, the absence of a credible deterrent from the West and the presence of Russian military assistance to Assad’s regime doubtless enabled Tuesday’s crimes against humanity.
There are, always have been, and likely always will be events that shock the conscience of the civilized world. This attack, clearly, is one such event. Its aftermath was so shocking and the images so awful that the president of the United States was morally offended by the nature and magnitude of the atrocity. Stunned and outraged, President Trump ordered United States naval combat forces in the eastern Mediterranean to launch cruise missiles against the Syrian air base whence came Tuesday’s gas attack. The Shayrat aerodrome is 67 miles south of Khan Sheikhoun and 53 miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. Reports indicate that the coordinated salvo of 61 Tomahawk missiles, loosed from the guided missile destroyers U.S.S. Ross and U.S.S. Porter, eliminated about 30 Syrian aircraft, heavily damaged dozens of aircraft shelters and cratered the runway, rendering the facility unusable for the immediate future.
The Pentagon describes this action as a “proportional response”. There were a handful of Syrian casualties in the attack, so the response was not exactly proportionate to the sarin gas deaths on Tuesday. The president, however, understands the true nature of Assad’s actions and the value of our reply. And although Tuesday’s victims were not Americans, the nature of the gas attack made it the civilized world’s business, which means it was the West’s business, which means it’s America’s business. The world now knows that this president will not dawdle, will not dither and won’t timidly wring his hands in the face of evil. That message is certainly lost neither on China, whose premier was literally inside the president’s personal Florida dwelling when it happened, nor on North Korea, who has been threatening America with destruction while testing the warheads and missiles with which to do it.
The Russians, who were apprised of the impending cruise missile attack beforehand, will posture and appear offended since Assad is their client. But the Kremlin certainly now knows that Trump’s America is a different nation from Obama’s. And the world, doubtless secretly relieved that America has rediscovered its backbone, knows that, too.