The United States launched a military strike Thursday on a Syrian government airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians earlier in the week.
It’s not the first time a US president launches missile strikes that do not amount to much but boost ratings.
Trump authorised this attack to ostensibly demonstrate that he will take a harder line against Syria, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama. While Trump’s actions represent the first time the US has attacked Assad’s forces since the civil war began six years, this military strike is embedded in a deeper history of America disciplining countries from the air over their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) facilities. Trump is in fact carrying on the legacy of President Bill Clinton.
The US launched cruise missile attacks against Iraqi WMD sites throughout the 1990s, and as of 2017 it is doing the same in Syria. The attacks seem to achieve little in the long run in changing the targeted government’s behaviour, but they provide symbolic proof to the international community of the US taking concrete action to discipline a country that violates the norm prohibiting WMD use.
The legacy of Bush and Clinton
On the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Gulf War I he wrote: “Desert Storm represented the first time the US sought to shape, control, and configure the Middle East from the air.”
During the six-week air campaign of this war, aerial sorties were conducted against Iraq’s WMD sites. Yet UN weapons inspectors on the ground after the war still discovered both facilities and munitions that survived the air campaign.
With the Saddam Hussein regime having survived Desert Storm, the US tried to contain the Iraqi leader with no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq, dubbed respectively Operation Northern and Southern Watch. Air strikes during these operations constituted a means of disciplining Saddam Hussein from the air, targeting Iraqi anti-aircraft radars and missile sites.
Additionally, in 1993 the Clinton administration authorised the launch of 23 cruise missiles against Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s alleged plot to assassinate former president George H W Bush, which ended up killing one of Iraq’s most prominent artists, Layla al-Attar.
In 1996 the US launched 27 cruise missiles at defence targets in southern Iraq, after Iraqi troops entered Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq and hunted down opponents of the regime.
This attack was followed up in 1998 with Operation Desert Fox, during which 415 cruise missiles were launched at suspected Iraqi WMD sites.
The strike is the first direct military action taken by the US against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s six-year civil war. It represents a substantial escalation of the US military campaign in the region, and could be interpreted by the Syrian government as an act of war.