Thursday evening, after finishing dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Donald Trump held a press conference to announce that he had ordered a military strike on a Syrian airfield. The United States launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from a pair of destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. The target was the Shayrat Airfield in Homs, from which the United States says the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad launched an attack using chemical weapons — sarin to be specific — on the town of Khan Sheikhoun earlier this week.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said from Mar-a-Lago, using language echoed in a statement issued by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“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,” Trump said.
“Civilized nations,” however, disagree on precisely how to do what Trump proposes and have for years diverged on how to address the war in Syria. This disagreement stems from a complex web of divergent interests with regard to Syria, the Assad government, relations with major stakeholders such as Russia and the United States, and preexisting positions with regard to the use of force and removal of governments.
Domestic debate inside the United States exploded Thursday night after news of the strike broke. In a way it’s an alternate version of an already experienced reality: what to do after a chemical weapons attack in Syria. In 2013, following a chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, then-President Barack Obama sought congressional approval for a retaliatory strike. He had previously declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line.” Obama did not receive the approval he sought from Congress, controlled by Republicans at the time, and instead the United States negotiated with Russia for the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons stocks (though clearly, not all of them were removed.)
Trump previously seemed to hold a strong position against further military engagement in Syria, tweeting, “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.” back in 2013.
Today, as Asia woke up to headlines about a U.S. strike on Syria, leaders across the region have had to figure out what (if anything) to say in response, taking into account their previous positions on Syria, relations with the United States and Russia, and level of comfort with military solutions to international problems.
Russia has firmly stood behind the Assad regime as the legitimate government of Syria. This week Moscow pushed back against reporting that the Syrian government had attacked Khan Sheikhoun with chemical weapons. As a Bellingcat analysis of the incident notes, “the Syrian and Russian governments both denied direct responsibility for the attack [on Khan Sheikhoun], claiming instead a warehouse storing chemical weapons produced by rebel groups was hit.”
Moscow condemned the U.S. strike, with a statement from the Kremlin categorizing the strike “as an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext.”
According to Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, “U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”
In 2015, Russia deployed aircraft to Syria to support Assad and conduct operations against rebels on behalf of the Syrian state. At the time a so-called deconfliction channel was established between the United States and Moscow. As the Washington Post puts it, “It calls for a U.S. colonel at an air base in Qatar and a Russian colonel to man a phone hotline and inform each other of where their countries’ planes are flying.”
Russia has announced its intention to suspend the channel and further bolster Syria’s air defenses.
Responses across Asia have been less bombastic but nonetheless interesting.
China, in particular, seems less than pleased with the attack, in general, and the timing, in particular. Needless to say, the Syria strike has completely pushed the Trump-Xi meeting off the front pages.
A good number of questions during the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s regular press briefing were about Syria. China, she reiterated, condemns the use of chemical weapons and Hua stressed the need for a comprehensive UN investigation. When asked about the legitimacy of the Assad government and whether the U.S. was shifting policy from recognizing Assad to “regime change” she reiterated China’s standard position of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. “You’d better ask the U.S. side whether their actions indicate a shift in policy,” she said.
When prodded to respond to the U.S. strike — to either condemn or approve — Hua said, “The Chinese side always opposes the use of force in international relations and maintains that disputes should be peacefully resolved through political and diplomatic means such as dialogue and consultation.”
Indonesia was, in a way, more firm in criticizing the unilateral U.S. strike. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Arramanatha Nasir said at a press briefing that “military actions, undertaken without prior authorization of the UN Security Council, are not in line with international legal principles in the peaceful settlement of disputes as stipulated in the UN Charter.” Like China, Indonesia reiterated its condemnation of the use of chemical weapons, and stressed that “peace and stability in Syria can only be achieved through dialogue and inclusive political process.”
Japan got closer to approving the U.S. strike, but focused more heavily on the chemical weapons issue. In a statement Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said “The government of Japan supports the determination of the U.S. government that it will never allow the spread and use of chemical weapons.” The statement continues with an awkward non-criticism, that can’t quite be read as approval: “We understand that the United States took the action in order to prevent further aggravation of the situation.”
The Abe statement turned the conversation toward the issue of weapons of mass destruction more generally: “While the threat of weapons of mass destructions has become increasingly serious in East Asia as well, Japan highly values President Trump’s strong commitment to maintenance of the international order and to the peace and security of its allies and the world.”
South Korea, so far, has not commented on the strike but had issued a statement about the chemical weapons attack earlier this week which also turned discussion, obliquely, to North Korea via a reference to the February assassination of Kim Jong-nam via VX nerve agent in Malaysia.
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered the strongest support for the U.S. strike, saying Friday that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was “a crime that called out for a swift response.” Turnbull said that Australia, “as a coalition partner” had been notified shortly before the attack. Turnbull characterized the strike as “a calibrated, proportionate, and targeted response.”
Bill English, the prime minister of New Zealand,in comments made Friday noted that Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee “was advised an hour or two before” the strike, “but we certainly weren’t asked for our opinion on it.”
“We of course would rather see the Syrian differences resolved by diplomatic processes but the Security Council hasn’t been able to condemn it or do anything about it so we can understand the U.S. taking action to prevent that kind of chemical attack occurring again — and we support action as long as it’s proportionate,” he said.
Russia and China have both vetoed resolutions in the UN Security Council, most recently in late February when they opposed a U.S. proposal aimed at sanctioning the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons.