Late last night, President Trump ordered the launch of cruise missiles to target an airbase in Syria.
More than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, in what was the first U.S attack on President Assad’s Syrian regime.
It came in response to a ‘chemical gas attack’ in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on Tuesday – widely reported to have been perpetrated by Syrian forces under the control of Assad – in which dozens of civilians, including many children, died.
In many ways it’s hard to look at this outside the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Attacks like this – and attacks much bigger than this – are what many people opposed to him feared when he took office, and in many ways it could be easy to view it as a spontaneous, rash action; not only something Donald Trump has done, but something only Donald Trump would do.
After all, Trump was previously adamant in his opposition to intervention in Syria. When Barack Obama was weighing up intervention in 2013 Trump repeatedly tweeted warnings against any kind of U.S military involvement.
Amongst other things, he said:
We should stay the hell out of Syria. The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.
What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.
But it’s not just Donald Trump’s opinions that appear to have changed.
American policy in general has been turned on its head. The BBC’s North America Editor, Jon Sopel has said:
Rarely has a policy changed so far and so quickly, and rarely has it been acted upon so swiftly.
When President Trump came to office, the Syrian leader was seen as a useful ally in the fight against so-called Islamic State.
All talk of regime change stopped. But the chemical weapons attack changed all that. Within two days of the attack, the U.S has reversed its view on President Assad, identified targets and struck.
What we don’t know is whether this is a one-off act of retaliation, or the start of something more prolonged against the Assad regime. And where it leaves relations with Syria’s strong ally, Russia.
These extreme policy changes make the actions seem exactly like the sort of impulsive decisions many people feared from a Trump Presidency. However, the reaction that has come from politicians in America, and across the world, would suggest otherwise.
In many ways this has been one of President Trumps most supported moves since he took over in the White House. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have long pushed for stronger action against Syria, have issued a joint statement.
They saluted the U.S forces carrying out the strike, adding:
They have sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.
Likewise the former U.S ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, has said the attack was ‘way overdue’ and there has also been international support.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a statement saying he ‘fully supports’ the strikes. Turkey has said it views the strikes positively, and believes the international community should sustain its stance against the ‘barbarity’ of the Syrian government. The polish government have expressed that they hope the action the U.S has taken will stabilise the situation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement, which though not directly supporting America, said:
President Assad alone bears the responsibility for this development. His repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people demand sanctions which France and Germany already asked for in the summer 2013 after the massacre at Ghouta.
Closer to home still, the UK government has announced it fully supports the U.S missile strike. A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We believe [it] was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.”
But worryingly this support has not been universal. Most notably, Russia has objected to the missile strikes, with Vladamir Putin suggesting it could do significant damage to U.S-Russian relations.
Just how much damage it will cause may be indicated by whether or not the U.S Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s, planned visit to Moscow goes ahead next week, but for two of the most powerful countries in the world, Syria is the most obvious and most dangerous point of tension and conflict.
The most outstanding consequence of last night’s attack could well be the effect it has on the already controversial relationship between Trump and Putin.
For the most part however, western civilisation appears to be behind Donald Trump in this instance.
Trumps statement on the matter included:
Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
In a way we haven’t seen before, and perhaps never expected to see, from Trumps America, the U.S seem to be attempting to step up to the mantle of the world’s policeman again, with much of Western civilisation seeming to fall in line in support.
Moving forward, the full significance of these attacks is yet to be determined. Many will fear that America will continue to attack Syria, rather than do what soome would prefer, and focus on helping Syrian refugees; while others will even fear that a compromised relationship with Russia could lead to even further, more damaging warfare.
But no matter what comes next, this action, even if it was an attempt at a deterrent, will always be the first direct U.S military attack on Assad’s Syria regime.
The support it has received means that the western world, in perhaps its most powerful way yet, is saying it won’t stand back and watch things happen without some sort of intervention.
Several questions remain to be answered. For instance, if further chemical attacks take place, will the U.S intervene again, and on a larger scale? Furthermore, if American involvement continues, where will this lead their relationship with Russia?
This latest move from Trump’s government, along with everything we’ve seen from him politically so far, makes it hard to tell. This could remain a one off, which the U.S, if unprovoked, intends not to follow up on, or it could be the start of planned interventions in Syria.
Either way, the combination of Trump’s radical change in policy, and the global support it has received, raises one huge question above all.
If Trump’s and America’s views on Syria can change so drastically and be acted upon so immediately, then how far might he go with them; and if he is supported in this action, how far will countries such as the UK, France and Germany go in supporting him in the future?
And, ultimately where will it leave a – now frosty – relationship with Russia.