But calling Trump’s potential strike against Syria a legitimate humanitarian intervention is absurd. The most comprehensive effort to define that notion came from the Canadian government, which in 2001—in response to pleas from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—empaneled a commission on the concept known as the “Responsibility to Protect.” That commission outlined several criteria that any humanitarian war must meet. No past U.S. intervention has met them fully. A new Syria strike, however, wouldn’t even come close.
One criterion was what the commission called “reasonable prospects.” A military intervention, it argued, must stand “a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention.” When Trump struck Syria for the first time last year, it may have been “reasonable” to hope an American strike would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again. But it is utterly unreasonable today. That’s because, in the year since Trump’s strike, Assad has used chemical weapons again and again. He didn’t just apparently use them last weekend. According to armscontrol.org, he also allegedly used them on March 11, on March 7 and at least five times in January and February.
Why didn’t Trump’s attempt at deterrence worked? In The New York Times, Max Fisher has offered two reasons. First, “to Mr. Assad, this war is a matter of personal and national survival. If he believes chemical weapons are necessary to his survival, he will abandon them only in the face of some threat to his survival greater than the benefit he thinks they offer him. That requires an existential threat, which the United States is unwilling to impose because of the risks.” Second, “Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies can easily help him absorb the costs imposed by such strikes. If the United States bombs another Syrian runway, Russian contractors can simply pave Mr. Assad a new one. It’s not exactly a game-changer for him.”
There’s no reason to believe these factors have changed since Trump’s strike last year. Russia and Iran are as committed to Assad as they were back then. The United States is as worried about toppling Assad and creating a jihadist-filled failed state. Which is why, even as Trump officials suggest that this attack, if it comes, will be bigger than the last, none has outlined a scenario by which it will prevent Syria’s further use of gas. When you think about it, it’s extraordinary. It’s easy to find Washington officials and politicians demanding that the U.S. respond to Syria’s latest atrocity by launching a military strike. It is almost impossible—and I’ve scoured the internet looking—to find a single one explaining why such a strike might work.
Another criterion the commission laid out was “right intention.” An intervention’s “primary purpose,” it argued, “must be to halt or avert human suffering.” On this score, too, Trump’s proposed attack manifestly fails. Yes, Trump has spoken angrily about the children Assad’s chemical weapons strikes have killed. But it’s harder to take Trump’s claims of humanitarian motivation seriously when he has essentially shut America’s borders to Syrians: By this time last year the United States had resettled almost 6,000 Syrian refugees; so far this year the number is 44.