The United States launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a government-controlled Syrian air force base in the Homs province, purportedly where the nerve agent sarin was loaded on to aircraft that attacked a village in the rebel-held Idlib province.
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 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…
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