The United States fired cruise missiles on Friday at a Syrian airbase from which President Donald Trump said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched, the first direct U.S. assault on the government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.
In the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency so far, Trump ordered the step his predecessor Barack Obama never took: directly targeting Assad's military as punishment for the chemical weapons attack which killed at least 70 people.
That catapulted the United States into a confrontation with Russia, which has military advisers on the ground assisting its close ally Assad.
"Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically," Trump said as he announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack," he said of Tuesday's chemical weapons strike, which Western countries blame on Assad's forces. "No child of God should ever suffer such horror."
The swift action is likely to be interpreted not only as a signal to Russia, but also to other countries such as North Korea, China and Iran where Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency.
The Syrian army said the U.S. attack killed six people at its air base near the city of Homs. It called the attack "blatant aggression" and said it made the United States a "partner" of "terrorist groups" including Islamic State. Homs Governor Talal Barazi told Reuters the death toll was seven.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the strike had seriously damaged ties between Washington and Moscow. Putin regarded the U.S. action as "aggression against a sovereign nation" on a "made-up pretext", spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russian television showed craters and rubble at the site of the airbase and said nine aircraft had been destroyed.
Let's review this from the point of view of the various audiences Trump performed this action for, shall we?
First up, Trump's base. They were starting to seriously stray from side, with his overall approval ratings sinking into the mid-30's. Trump and the GOP have suffered losses (with the extremely important exception of the completion of the theft of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court seat, but that entirely because it had nothing to do with Paul Ryan and the House GOP) on repealing Obamacare, on numerous executive orders running into immediate judicial buzzsaws, and most importantly on the Russian investigation front.
Now, they have a big, manly win to be proud of, and anyone left who is somehow surprised that "Never Trump" pundits and commentators will suddenly come around to embrace Trump, the guy who would fire missiles into Syria when wimpy, wussy Muslim Obama wouldn't, needs to get a lot of other things checked too. This was always going to happen, it just happened far more quickly than even I anticipated. If the "Never Trump" movement wasn't dead before, its death by self-flagellation using the huge war boner from this missile strike will come by the weekend. The stories on MikeFlynn go away, the hagiography of Mad Dog Mattis and H.R. McMaster being firmly in charge now are the story of the day. Can I get a Hoorah and a Semper Fi from the congregation?
And that brings us to number two on the list: the Village. America's worthless media pundits do so love a good Tomahawk-ing of sandy countries full of swarthy men with funny clothing. They're falling all over themselves congratulating Trump this morning. FOX News has been running missile porn for hours and will for days. Serious-minded thinkers on the left and the right will tell us that Trump made the right choice, and that more importantly since we learned precisely nothing over the last 16 years, we'll be told once again that challenging this action is no longer allowed and that it's time to support "our president".
Again, there's nothing more the Village loves than a big national tragedy that sells, and now they can talk war, giving them a very convenient reason to completely forget the narrative of the last several months. Trump wanted a story to make the Obamacare repeal disaster and Russian investigation go away, and he's got it for at least the rest of the month. Trump will see the effectiveness of the action and will continue down this path, guaranteed. He wants to be a "winner" and this is a "win" in the eyes of the Village press.
Number three of course is Putin and Assad. The Russians want out of Syria and with both Assad and Trump working for Vlad, it's easy to game the system. This is the next phase of Moscow's plan, and it's working wonderfully so far. I know, you're saying "But if Putin wants out of Syria, why have Assad do something guaranteed to make Trump step in?" Well, what better way to disarm Russian critics in the US than to be the shadowy bad guy behind baby-gassing Assad, right? Russia can't possibly be working with Trump if we're at loggerheads in Damascus, you see, And Putin gets his cover, after all he wants this Russia investigation to go away too.
Besides, it's not like Putin and Trump are mortal enemies now. Both need each other. A chemical weapon attack followed by a bunch of cruise missiles that just happen to all get through Russian SAM defenses that are protecting Syrian air bases is a scheme that stinks so hard it's visible from space. Trump let Vlad know (and Vlad let Trump think it was his idea), Vlad let Bashar know, and anything important was not at that airbase that got blown up last night. A win for everyone involved, right?
Ahh, but let's not forget contestant number four in our game, China's Xi Jinping. There's a reason all this happened on the night Xi was staying in Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach for a summit, with North Korea rattling its playpen bars and wanting attention. Golf and glitz doesn't impress Xi. Missiles and warships on the other hand, we'll that just kinda changed the game on today summit talks, don't they? Suddenly the Trump Foreign Policy Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight pulled this off with the manly generals in charge and you have to wonder.
China's been running circles around Trump in the Pacific as of late, but now Xi has quite a bit to think about on the trip back home. The US is a player in the Pacific, but so is Russia. Trump's move throws a wrench into the already delicate machinery of the Great Game. Xi's not dumb enough to buy this "Russia and the US at odds" thing any more than you are, dear reader. They'll move cautiously, which is what Trump and Putin both want.
So where does that leave us? Is this a one-time deal meant to buy time for when the Russian investigation shoe drops? Does Trump really want a boost to his numbers this badly? Does Vlad care that his machinations are this obvious?
We'll find out. Stay tuned, guys.