US foreign policy changes in an instant
By Hillary Bosch
Staff Help the Refugees
This past Tuesday on April 4th, the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons to bomb the rebel-controlled Idlib province in northwestern Syria, close to the Turkish border. At 6:30 am, an airstrike hit the town of Khan Sheikhoun with poisonous gas—one witness recalls seeing the blue and yellow from the plane. Minutes later, other parts of the town were bombed by three more airstrikes, although there is no evidence of poisonous gas in these attacks.
When medics arrived on the scene, victims were showing symptoms of poison by a neurotoxic agent—the nature of which has yet to be confirmed. Experts suspect Sarin gas was used. Depending on the extent of exposure and inhalation, symptoms ranged from headaches, nausea, and blurred vision to paralysis, loss of consciousness, and deadly respiratory distress. Several hours after the initial attacks, hospitals and medical camps that were set up to treat victims were also targeted and bombed, rendering them ineffective and unable to continue to retrieve and treat victims. Abdul Hamid Youssef, a survivor of the attacks, says he lost 25 family members to the bombings including his two 9 month-old twins, Ahmad and Aya. Though information is still coming in, estimates show that at least 70 men, women, and children were killed in the attacks, mostly of asphyxiation.
The Syrian government, who signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning use of such weapons, denied their involvement in the airstrikes and claimed it was carried out by terrorist groups. Although the United States military has radar evidence linking Syrian planes to the location of the bombings, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem denounces the data, saying that Syria has never, and will never, use chemical weapons against their own citizens. Syria claims that at 11:30 am (5 hours after the airstrikes), they bombed a terrorist arsenal and munitions compound which may have contained chemical weapons and thus caused the disaster. The Russian Foreign Ministry supports Syria’s response and condemns leaders for assuming Assad’s regime was behind the attacks, asking for an investigation into the situation.
World leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have condemned the attacks as caused by the Syrian regime. However Prime Minister Theresa May has asked for an investigation to prove Assad was behind it.
US President Donald Trump responded with more than words on Thursday afternoon when he ordered 60 American Tomahawk missiles to be fired from a Navy destroyer stationed in the Mediterranean, targeting a Syrian airbase. This marks a change from Trump’s foreign policies, whcih are pulling out of international agreements and ceasing to be the “policeman of the world.” His actions also contradict his tweets and comments from 2013 when he condemned Obama for threatening military force if Syria used chemical weapons on its citizens, in which he said “what will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?” He criticized the past administration for not seeking congressional approval before considering actions in Syria. During his administration, Trump has and is still making multiple attempts to ban refugees fleeing from the violence in Syria, and other countries afflicted by war and terrorism, from entering the United States.
But now, Trump calls the conflict “horrific” and “an affront to humanity,” apparently enough to merit military action he condemned only a few years ago. In response to recent events, Trump says “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” While the Trump administration says their general foreign policy approach will remain unchanged, these new actions open the door for increased military presence in the region. Before this week, Trump expressed that his focus was on ISIS, not the Syrian regime. Does the presence of chemical weapons shift his administration’s focus or expand it to include more opponents? Will Trump increase US military presence in Syria or was this a one-time retaliation? In addition to military action, humanitarian groups, such as the International Rescue Committee, are pleading for the US to foster peace talks and congruently increase diplomatic relations in the region. So far, the administration has said that it will increase sanctions, but pledges no further action. On Sunday, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley commented on the attacks, claiming Trump is “prepared to do more,” as she thinks peace through diplomacy will be unlikely with the Assad regime in power.
The Syrian war and growing humanitarian crisis demands greater diplomacy and peace in the region, yet does it require US military intervention? With Russia sponsoring Syrian military forces, every action the US takes—military, humanitarian, or diplomatic—must be carefully evaluated in how it will affect the many players in the conflict. Though the Trump administration has been tight-lipped and vague in its policies towards Syria, one thing is for sure—this is not a conflict we can overlook anymore. We are involved and cannot go back.