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Trump Shocks World in Direct US Strike on Syrian Airbase That Could Violate International Law

Without congressional approval, on Thursday night the United States attacked a Syrian airfield.

Without congressional approval, on Thursday night the United States attacked a Syrian airfield, marking the first military action by the US against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since the Syrian war began over six years ago. The move comes after the US accused Assad’s forces of using the air base to carry out a chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people, including at least 30 children. Syria denies carrying out the attack. “After six years of watching genocide, … today I am very happy that there is one less airfield,” says Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer from Aleppo, in the first part of our roundtable discussion. We also speak with Alia Malek, journalist and former human rights lawyer, and Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. “The hypocrisy of it from the vantage point of the Trump administration is staggering,” Bennis says, calling the strike an act of war and arguing all sides in Syria have violated international law.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Syria, where the US military has attacked a Syrian airfield, marking the first military action the US has taken against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since the Syrian war began over six years ago. According to the Pentagon, 59 Tomahawk missiles were dropped on the Shayrat air base. Syrian state media reports nine civilians, including four children, were killed, after a US missile hit a nearby village.

The US accused Assad’s forces of using the Shayrat air base to carry out a recent chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people, including at least 30 children. Syria denied carrying out the chemical attack, saying the deaths occurred after a Syrian airstrike hit a depot of rebel-controlled chemical weapons.

The US bombing comes just days after the Trump administration signaled support for allowing Assad to stay in power. But on Thursday, President Trump struck a very different tone.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: The US notified Russia in advance of the US strikes. Condemning the US attack, Russia did, calling it an act of aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law. Following the attack, Russia suspended an agreement with the US aimed at coordinating airspace over Syria. Russia is also reportedly offering to help Syria strengthen its air defenses. Meanwhile, there are reports that Syria is threatening to fire Scud missiles towards Israel if the US carries out any more airstrikes on Syrian military targets.

On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers have accused Trump of taking the military action without congressional authorization. Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California said, quote, “This is an act of war. Congress needs to come back into session & hold a debate. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibility,” unquote. Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Thomas Massie sent out a tweet quoting a statement Trump made in 2013 saying, quote, “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” unquote.

We’re joined today by a number of guests. We were begin with Alia Malek, author of The Home That was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. She’s joining us here in New York. In Boston, we’re joined by Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American writer from Aleppo. She runs the Karam Foundation. In Washington, DC, Phyllis Bennis is with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Alia, let’s begin with you. Your response to this news of this first US attack on the Syrian government, on the Syrian military, in response, President Trump said last night, to the gas attack on Tuesday?

ALIA MALEK: Yes, that is what he said. But what his actual motivations were, I think, remain to be seen. My reaction is that there are a few things that are clear — one, that President Trump has distinguished himself from his predecessor, in that he’s shown he’s a man of action. He has asserted — or the appearance — or, you know, he’s created the appearance of sort of asserting a kind of independence from Russia, which, given the intrigue surrounding the Russian involvement with his election, is something that would have a benefit to him.

And most importantly, what’s missing is we don’t really know what effect this will have on the extent to which Assad will continue to act with impunity in Syria. We know one of the airfields from which he’s launched attacks has been destroyed. But we also know that President Assad uses — just can sort of twist just about anything to serve his own — his own narrative. And the reality is, in moments like these, when the regime tends to lose face or has sort of appeared to be insulted or injured, the people who will pay the price for that will be Syrian civilians somewhere else.

I mean, and most importantly, I guess, what we did learn is that, for whatever reasons, Syrians dying by chemical weapons seems to raise the ire of people more than whether they’re dying by bullets or mortars or barrel bombs, because no day is different in the last six years. Syrian civilians have been dying continuously because of both regime actors and also armed opposition actors. But most of the deaths have come from regime actions.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Lina Sergie Attar in Boston. We just spoke to you yesterday and now today, this very different world we’ve entered, although, as Alia says, Syrians are dying every day. It just matters — it seems to matter more when chemical weapons are used. Your response?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Well, I agree with Alia, with what she was saying before. And I want to say that nobody wants more violence to happen in Syria. Nobody wants to welcome airstrikes in their country. But after six years of watching genocide, watching over 500,000 people die in Syria and the destruction of our homeland, today I am very happy that there is one less airfield for Bashar al-Assad to use to kill his own people, out of the 26 airfields that have been used over the past six years to bomb the Syrian people, as Alia said, with chemical weapons, with barrel bombs and with all sorts of weaponry.

And we cannot forget the tens of thousands of people who are under torture in Assad’s dungeons across Syria, and people are not talking about the people that are — have been imprisoned and being tortured for years now.

And I was struck by the response of Syrians on social media in the past 12 hours or so. And one of the responses from an activist, Marcell Shehwaro, on Facebook is that she said that just having the possibility of — only the possibility, not the actual knowledge, that Syrians will no longer die from a chemical weapons attack makes us feel happy today. So, the possibility of less death for us is something that we have to take as a sign of positivity. And that’s the sad state of the world we live in.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, do you think this will lead to fewer deaths?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Unfortunately, I’m afraid I don’t think it will. I think that the horror of this attack — and I think there is a particular issue around the use of chemical weapons because there’s a particular international law prohibition against chemical weapons. So it does matter more.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we heard from President Trump. What we heard was that he was motivated by the claim that this was somehow in the US interest, that this was going to protect Americans, which is simply not the case. He made no reference to what it might mean for Syrians. And he referred to it in terms of his own emotions. He was moved by seeing these children that had been killed so horrifically, as I think everybody who saw or heard anything about this attack. But that doesn’t take into account, Amy, as we know, the problem of the war that has been waged in Syria and in the region, where the deaths of children have not motivated, either, US officials — the deaths of children in Mosul, the deaths of children across Syria, the deaths of refugee children who are being denied entrance to the United States. The hypocrisy of it from the vantage point of the Trump administration is staggering, an administration that slams the door in the face overwhelmingly of children and women from Syria who are trying desperately to find refuge somewhere. This is something that might actually help some people. I don’t think that an attack on one airfield, unfortunately, is going to change the military balance of forces.

I think what we are seeing is a complete violation of international law by the United States, in the context of other violations that have happened across the war battlefield in Syria, certainly more casualties caused by the regime, but violations of international law on all sides. The claim that somehow Trump’s own emotions give him the right to now violate both domestic law — no consultation with Congress — and international law — no approval from the United Nations — this was an illegal act. This was an act of war. And to say that this is somehow going to make things better for Syrians, I’m afraid that after this, it’s going to get much worse, not better.

AMY GOODMAN: Alia Malek, your response?

ALIA MALEK: No, I mean, Phyllis raises some important points, but the — and the reality is, we don’t know. We cannot really evaluate Trump’s motivations, because we still have no real answers on the collusion with Russia. I mean, if it is true that, you know, Trump is really friends with Putin, then, OK, then this is all a kind of theater. And this is what a lot of Syrians are saying today, that it’s just a sort of a performance to sort of make it look like there’s independence between — between the two world leaders. We’re at day one. Do I think that all of a sudden there’s been some sort of, you know, articulation of a coherent policy from this administration as to what to do in Syria? No, absolutely not. I mean, we’re just sort of speculating at this point, until we can really know, with some sort of transparency, what the relationship is between this administration, in its election, and the Russians.

AMY GOODMAN: Lina, if you could respond to what Phyllis said, and also let’s go to the comment of Tulsi Gabbard that I was just talking about, who just said — she warned the attack could escalate to a nuclear war, saying, “It angers and saddens me that President Trump has taken the advice of war hawks and escalated our illegal regime change war to overthrow the Syrian government.” She also said in her statement, “A successful prosecution of Assad (at the International Criminal Court) will require collection of evidence from the scene of the incident, and I support the United Nation’s efforts in this regard. Without such evidence, successful prosecution is impossible,” she said. And she went on from there in her comments. And I wanted to get your comment on her full statement. She says, “This escalation is short-sighted and will lead to more dead civilians, more refugees, the strengthening of al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia — which could lead to nuclear war.” Lina, your thoughts?

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Well, for many years, since 2013, since the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, which killed over 1,400 people, Syrians themselves have said, “What comes after chemical weapons? Will Bashar al-Assad himself use nuclear war against us?” And this is the question. How much further can we escalate this war against the Syrian people and Syrian civilians by the Assad regime and its allies? So this is the question that Syrians have been asking. They have been suffering for many years. They have been the ones living under the bombs and under the barrel bombs and under the threat of chemical weapons attacks. And since yesterday, although we have already heard that the Assad regime has struck several areas in Idlib since yesterday, for the most part, Syrian skies were quiet. And we are at that point of desperation, where Syrians inside Syria, inside Khan Sheikhoun and other areas across the country, said, for the first time, they could hear birds in the skies.

So, escalation of war to the — to a nuclear war? We don’t know what will happen. But what we do know is that when a government bombs its own people with chemical weapons, there must be a response. And what we saw in the last administration, with the red line remarks and hundreds of chemical weapons attacks that happened since then, including several attacks this year, which nobody responded to, that, yes, the bombing of an air base makes — might make them think twice. And we go back to this idea of the possibility of less attacks, because maybe he will think twice before bombing his own people once again.

And we are very saddened by the loss of life every single day in Syria by the destruction. No Syrian will be unkilled. We have paid a very, very high price for what the Syrian people came out on the streets in 2011 demanding dignity and freedom. We have come a long way from there. And this loss is something that we will have to mourn for a very, very long time, for decades perhaps. And Alia Malek writes about this beautifully in her new book. Syrians have paid a high price. And what we hope for is the end of violence and the transition to peace, justice and freedom for Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Lina Sergie Attar, I want to thank you for joining us. I know you have to leave, and I’m asking our other guests to remain with us. Syrian-American writer Alia Malek also with us, author of The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. And we’ll be joined by others. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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