USA strikes Assad in major policy U-turn

Strike one: A Tomahawk missile flies over the Mediterranean Sea on the way to Syria.

Donald Trump has carried out a dramatic missile strike on a Syrian air base. It is the first time the USA has taken military action against Bashar Assad’s regime. Should it go further?

On Tuesday, in the wake of the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province, images of writhing, suffocating civilians flooded the world’s media. Donald Trump was among those watching.

The president’s response was swift. On Thursday evening, he ordered US ships in the Mediterranean Sea to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the air base, controlled by Bashar Assad’s regime, from which the chemical attack was apparently launched.

The damage was limited. The USA had informed Assad’s ally Russia of the strike in advance, allowing the regime to evacuate equipment and personnel. The next day, jets were reportedly flying out from the base again. But widespread destruction was not the point: the strike was intended as a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons again.

For once, Trump had the support of Republicans of all stripes — and even some Democrats. International allies praised his decisive action. The strike was cheered by critics of Barack Obama, who held back from military action after Assad launched a far more devastating chemical attack in 2013. “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States,” said CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Predictably, Russia was less pleased. President Vladimir Putin, who denies that Assad used chemical weapons, accused the USA of “aggression against a sovereign state … under a far-fetched pretext”. The prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, went further. The USA and Russia were now “on the verge of a military clash,” warned the politician.

The missile strike certainly marks a change of direction — not just from Obama’s hands-off approach, but from Trump’s own views. He has long called for the USA to cooperate with Russia and Syria in defeating Islamic State. Now, however, the president is wary of Assad. As he told Congress, he is prepared to “take additional action, as necessary and appropriate.”

What happens next is unclear. Some fear that Assad will test Trump’s resolve with another chemical attack. If he does, should the USA declare war?

Fight or flight

Yes, say some. Assad has been committing atrocities against his people for years, killing and displacing millions, and providing IS with a rallying point. Throughout, the USA has stood by and watched. This makes it complicit in the bloodshed. Assad is a brutal dictator who will only respond to force — Trump must not be afraid to use it.

Hold on, reply others. A full-scale intervention against Assad probably means war with Russia, and that would be devastating for everyone involved. And six years into the country’s civil war, the USA still has no plan for a post-Assad Syria. It needs to accept that sometimes it is powerless to help, and steer clear of the Middle East.

You Decide

  1. If Assad uses chemical weapons again, how should the USA react?
  2. Are this week’s events a game-changer for the war in Syria?


  1. Imagine you are the US president. How would you react to the chemical attack? Write a speech in which you give your view to the nation.
  2. In groups of three, choose a chemical weapon. Give a presentation to the class, describing its effects and uses in history.

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Assad promised to get rid of his chemical weapons in 2013. But since then there have been numerous chemical attacks linked to his regime. All the evidence indicates that he was behind Tuesday’s attack, although he denies it.
What do we not know?
Whether Russia knew about the chemical attack before it happened. The Pentagon is investigating this at the moment.
What do people believe?
Russia is a key military backer of Assad, and it negotiated the agreement whereby he was supposed to give up his chemical weapons. Whether or not it was directly involved in Tuesday’s attack, many hold it responsible for what happened. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin and called for an improvement in US-Russian relations. As of this week, that looks a lot less likely.

Word Watch

Chemical attack
According to local reports, the toxic nerve gas sarin was used in the attack, which killed over 70. The area is held by rebel factions opposed to Assad.
Thursday evening
Friday morning in Syria.
Tomahawk missiles
The USA has used Tomahawks since the Gulf War in 1991. The 18-foot missiles fly low to the ground and can change direction while in the air.
The USA claims that it destroyed radars, air defence systems, petroleum storage and around 20 planes, among other things. According to the Syrian government, at least 16 people were killed.
Less pleased
Russia reacted to the strike by promising to bolster Syria’s air defence systems. It has also threatened to abandon a military hotline to the USA designed to avoid collisions between the two countries’ planes in Syrian airspace.
Russia argues that Syrian jets accidentally blew up a chemical depot belonging to rebels.
Wary of Assad
Days before the chemical attack, the Trump administration was arguing that Assad’s regime is the “political reality.” Now, it says that it considers his removal a priority.


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