Syria has the right to declare war on the United States after the Shayrat air base was attacked Thursday with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The U.S. declared war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and there were very few people who felt that declaration of war was not justified.
You might say the United States of 1941 and Syria today cannot be compared on equal terms. Bashar al-Assad is brutalizing his people in horrendous ways, unlike the United States seventy-five years ago. Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on those who oppose his rule and anyone else in the vicinity. The pre-World War II U.S., on the other hand, was terrorizing and lynching people based solely on the color of their skin. There is a valid comparison although Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was not in response to the maltreatment of African Americans.
When Donald Trump ordered the cruise missile attack Thursday, it was the eve of the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. That war began with an assassination which led to a declaration of war between a large powerful empire and a small weak nation.
Both countries had military alliances aimed at preventing war because a small skirmish could quickly turn into a large conflict if all parties honored their promises. Russia and France were on Serbia’s side and Germany supported the Austro-Hungarians. Great Britain didn’t have an agreement with any of the primary combatants, but was drawn in when the German Army marched through Belgium to get to France.
But it would be crazy for Syria to declare war on the United States, right? Actually, there are good reasons to do it.
- Assad is a pariah with many in the Arab world because he has brutalized his own people to retain control. A declaration of war reminds the region of its imperialistic past and will potentially improve Assad’s image – everyone likes an underdog.
- Syria has a couple powerful allies, Russia and Iran. While neither is a match for the United States in firepower, there is no way the U.S. would want to engage either country militarily. Such a conflict would be costly and highly unpopular, and Russia has enough nuclear missiles to destrogen the world many times over.
- For all its bravado, Russia is unpredictable and perhaps at a tipping point. Years of economic sanctions plus low oil prices have caused real damage to the Russian economy. High alcohol consumption during these bleak times is pushing life expectancy down and the birth rate doesn’t keep up with the rate of death. Many Russians might want a reset. Their last period of greatness on the world stage followed near total destruction at the hands of the Nazis. Russia has never been conquered and that history suggests the U.S. would fail too in a military conflict, especially if it included an invasion.
- Russian leaders are likely disheartened by Trump’s recent actions. They invested much to sway the presidential election his way and hoped to reap rewards. A declaration of war by Syria would give the Russians the upper hand because they are too scary to attack and can claim the moral high ground because, unlike the U.S., they did not attack a sovereign nation without authorization, although Ukrainian leaders would disagree.
- The Russian government could call for sanctions against the United States because of the attack and potentially get sanctions lifted against Russia in the process.
- The Trump Administration is unprepared for a declaration of war by Syria. Many senior positions in the Defense and State Departments remain unfilled, and it is highly unlikely Congress would declare war on Syria with Russia standing in their corner. The U.S. will probably look foolish and may have to negotiate a settlement in which the U.S. has to pay Syria for the cost of planes and structures destroyed in Thursday’s attack. That would embarrass President Trump and elevate Assad’s image, and Mr. Trump does not have a history of backing down.
Many people on Friday’s news programs were happy to weigh in on the air base attack. Most said they were pleased that Mr. Trump took this decisive action, although a few talked about legal implications. Very few expressed concern with the potential consequences, and no one considered that Syria may declare war on the United States. There’s a parallel with World War I here. Almost nobody thought a major war could happen again because the countries’ economies were so dependent on international trade. Since war is costly in so many ways, why would countries decide to fight when they could enrich themselves with trade instead?
Sounds rational, doesn’t it? But World War I did happen and World War II followed a generation later. I believe there is reason for concern. World War III is one possible result of Thursday’s attack.
I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that, but if the only way to avoid it is for Mr. Trump to admit he made a mistake and apologize, it may be time to build that fallout shelter in the backyard.