The United States’ intervention in the Syrian civil war took a new turn on April 7, when American ships launched a missile strike on the Syrian government’s Al Shayrat air base. This attack on Bashar al-Assad’s regime marked a shift in US policy—previous American military actions in Syria over roughly the past two-and-a-half years had focused on various anti-government insurgent groups such as ISIS. US President Donald Trump apparently ordered the strike as a response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on April 4 against Syrians in an insurgent-held part of the country. While the Assad regime’s repression of its own people deserves unequivocal condemnation, the recent American military strike was nevertheless wrong, for three reasons. Attacking Assad’s regime is 1) unlikely to help the Syrian people; 2) not in American interests; and 3) of dubious legality under US and international law.
Before elaborating on these three points, I want to emphasize that revulsion at Assad’s regime and its policies is justified and opposition to the recent US military action should not obscure the essential malevolence of that regime. While a full investigation into the April 4 chemical attack remains to be made, numerous other incidents over the past six years of civil war have demonstrated the Syrian government’s brutality. The regime has targeted civilians by methods that include bombing and denying food and other necessities; it has carried out mass executions and torture, including sexual assault (which can impose pregnancies and therefore increase the danger of abortion and infanticide); and, whatever the truth of the April 4 incident, it has used chemical weapons in the past. Opponents of US military action should not gloss over any of this.
Even the worst human rights violations by a regime do not excuse an imprudent response. The April 7 strike was a profoundly imprudent response, for the following reasons:
1) Attacking the Assad regime is unlikely to help the Syrian people.
A single missile strike on a single air base is clearly not going to prevent the Assad regime from waging war on its own people (planes were reportedly taking off from the air base within days after the attack). The strike at best served as warning to the Assad regime not to carry out any further chemical weapons attacks, lest it invite further retaliation. Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to stop efforts to win the civil war and crush the various insurgent groups that oppose him, however, even in the face of American threats.
What Assad presumably sees at stake in the civil war is his regime’s survival and even his own personal survival. As recent history has shown, dictators who are overthrown do not live long. If Assad wishes to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, he will likely continue to use the methods at his disposal, including chemical weapons or similarly brutal means, to stay in power.
Stopping Assad from brutalizing the Syrian people would likely require not threats or symbolic missile strikes but significant military action either to overthrow his regime or at least to weaken it sufficiently that he cannot exert significant influence on much of the country. American military action could accomplish such a goal, but the question then arises of what kind of regime would replace Assad’s. As recent history has also shown, overthrowing an oppressive regime is comparatively easy but creating a stable, more humane government in the aftermath of regime change is far more difficult. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya all provide examples of how violence and chaos can follow an oppressive government’s violent overthrow.
The prospect of regime change in Syria is particularly daunting given the nature of the insurgent groups fighting against Assad. Anti-government groups, which include ISIS and the Fatah al-Sham Front (once associated with al Qaeda), are no more respectful of human rights than the current Syrian government. During the Syrian civil war, insurgent groups have also carried out atrocities such as attacking civilians, torture, and even using chemical weapons. To replace rule by Assad with rule by one of these groups or—what is a more likely result of regime change—to reduce Syria to a state of permanent anarchy in which such groups fight for power is not going to help the Syrian people.
2) Attacking the Assad regime is not in American interests.
While realpolitik calculations of national interest should not be the only consideration in responding to conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, these kinds of calculations should be considered. The Assad regime, for all its repression of its own people, does not pose a threat to American citizens. An insurgent group such as ISIS, which has inspired various terrorist attacks that have killed Americans, does pose a threat, however. To overthrow the Assad regime and allow these groups to operate without the restraints imposed by opposition from a hostile regime is no more in the American people’s interests than the Syrian people’s.
Moreover, American actions against the Assad regime entail opposition to the regime’s chief sponsor, Russia. While the April 7 airfield attack was apparently executed so as to avoid killing any Russian personnel who might be assisting the Syrian military, the attack escalated the already high tensions between Russia and the United States. Taking further military action against the Syrian government would likely worsen relations further, especially as future attacks might well kill Russian troops and bring the American and Russian militaries into direct conflict. High tensions, let alone open military conflict, between the nations with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world is not in the interests of the United States or of humanity.
3) Attacking the Assad regime is of dubious legality under American and international law.
The legal sanction for President Trump bombing Syria is tenuous at best. The US Congress has not declared war on Syria or otherwise authorized military action in that country. While the US president has some authority, under the 1973 War Powers Act, to use military power without congressional approval, this authority exists only in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” The Syrian civil war clearly does not qualify as such a situation.
Such legal considerations were largely ignored by the Obama administration in some of its uses of military force, including the ongoing military operations in Syria. Nevertheless, the Syrian campaign had at least a semblance of legal justification: President Obama argued that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force in response to the September 11th attacks by al Qaeda gave him the authority to fight against al Qaeda’s offshoot, ISIS, in Syria. Even this legal justification, strained as it was, does not apply to the April 7 missile attacks, however, which targeted the Syrian government, not any al Qaeda-connected terrorist group.
The missile strikes were also unjustified under international law. An American attack on Syria in response to the Syrian government abusing its own people cannot be justified, under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, as self-defense. The United States was in no way acting in direct defense against an attack. Moreover, the missile attack was not authorized by the UN Security Council, so it cannot claim the sanction of international law in that way either.
In the absence of legal justifications, the American attack on Syria must be considered another regrettable example of a nation using military force unilaterally, without restraint by international norms and institutions. Within the United States, it must also be considered another example of a chief executive unilaterally using force without constitutional or other legal restraints. These are not patterns of international behavior that promote a more peaceful world.
To repeat, none of these problems with the recent American bombing excuse or lessen the monstrous behavior of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. However, the understandable horror that the Assad regime inspires should not lead anyone to support a misguided policy. For the reasons given above, I would argue that American military attacks on the Assad regime are misguided. Any attempts by the Trump administration to conduct further attacks such as that on April 7 should be opposed.
A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.
 For accounts of human rights violations by Syrian government forces, see Amnesty International, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria,” February 7, 2017, https://bit.ly/2klcy6H; UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” August 13, 2014, https://bit.ly/15K5juV; UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” August 13, 2015, https://bit.ly/2rUtfcp; UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” February 2, 2017, https://bit.ly/3lTCJiu; United Nations, “Security Council Considers Fourth Report by Joint Investigative Mechanism,” Press Release, October 27, 2016, https://bit.ly/2kboVBi.
 War Powers Resolution of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93–148, §2, 87 Stat. 555 (1973), available at https://bit.ly/2k8yn8k.
 Eli Lake, “Obama’s New War on ISIS May Be Illegal,” Daily Beast, September 10, 2014, https://thebea.st/2IvleVM.
 United Nations, Charter, Chapter VII, “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression,” Article 51, June 26, 1945, https://bit.ly/2wRhfNE.
© 2017 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.