Do the Syria Strikes Represent a Human Rights Turning Point for Trump? Not So Fast

Last week was a tale of two foreign policies. On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited the White House, and it appeared to be business as usual for the Trump team. With the cameras rolling, the message was unmistakable: “We’re going to be friends for a very, very long time.” The symbolism was not lost on the human rights community, who attribute a litany of abuses to Egypt’s president, including disappearances, mass detention, and torture. But el-Sisi’s visit seemed to be in keeping with Trump’s America First doctrine and his transactional approach to policy: foreign leaders can do what they like so long as they conform to U.S. interests.

Then on Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad authorized an unexpected chemical weapons attack on a small village in the northern Syria province of Idlib. Reports indicate at least 86 people were killed, including 28 children.

The response from the Trump administration was unexpected. First Ambassador Nikki Haley declared that the United States was contemplating unilateral action in response to the chemical attack and questioned: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” In the afternoon, Trump asserted that Syria’s attacks were “an affront against humanity.” Late on Thursday evening, the United States launched 59 Tomahawk missiles in retaliation for Assad’s actions.

Many in the human rights community have conveyed their approval. Indeed this is a moment that advocates have been waiting for, despairing as multiple chemical weapons attacks, barrel-bomb strikes on civilians, hospitals used as torture chambers, and mass killings by the Assad regime generated little more than handwringing. Paradoxically, the very person human rights advocates least expected to stand up for innocent civilians showed little hesitation in sending a clear message to Assad about his use of chemical weapons.

But before pundits declare this a turning point – or as Fareed Zakaria exuberantly put it, the moment “Trump just became President” – further reflection is in order. While there is no doubt that Trump’s order represented a significant break from Obama administration policy and doubtless caught Assad, Russia, Iran and others off guard, there are several important questions to be answered.

To start, why exactly did Trump launch cruise missiles and was this military action really about human rights? One of the big puzzles of the Trump presidency is that he rarely explains the reasons behind his decisions. When announcing the Syria strikes, Trump seemed to deliver two messages. First, he stated that the chemical weapons attacks represented a horrible desecration of human life: “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” Second, he asserted, “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” Is Trump indicating that certain types of human rights violations are so egregious that the United States has a moral obligation to respond and deter their future use? Or is main point more realpolitik: chemical weapons represent a grave threat to national interests and therefore the U.S. will not permit any country to deploy them?

This distinction is incredibly important. If Trump is laying down a marker on human rights, then this has major ramifications for leaders committing rampant abuses. It could mean that the Trump administration will not abdicate the United States’ traditional role as a guarantor of human rights. It may also change the calculations for those hoping that Trump’s election signals the diminishment of the liberal international order.

On the other hand, if Trump’s team indicates that the main rationale behind the Syria strikes is to send a pointed message to rogue nuclear states like North Korea, then the future human rights impact will be minimal. It will signal to el-Sisi and many other chronic human rights abusers that the U.S. response was a special circumstance, and that pursuing a values-based foreign policy remains only a peripheral consideration for the Trump team. Moreover, such a decision will let Assad know that as long as he refrains from using chemical weapons, he can continue torturing and killings his citizens with impunity. In some respects, this may give Assad an even freer hand by specifically defining where the U.S. will intervene and where it will continue to be hands-off.

Of course, given the confusion of signals that is a hallmark of the Trump administration, it may be some time before we know exactly what the White House is planning. On Sunday, Haley seemed to suggest that regime change in Syria is on the table. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated exactly the opposite – that the U.S. strike was a one-off and that there are no plans to change the U.S. military posture. Meanwhile National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster straddled the middle, affirming that the U.S. would push for regime change, but it wouldn’t “effect that change” itself.

This leads to a larger question: will the Trump team continue to go it alone, or will they seek to build international consensus about removing Assad from power and aggressively protecting civilians? Last week’s strikes have echoes of Bush unilateralism: allies were notified at the last minute, and there was conspicuously little attempt to try to get Security Council backing for a response. Given the horrific nature of the chemical attacks, few are raising an outcry. But if the U.S. undertakes further military actions and fails to consult with allies or build a wider case for the international community, this will send a blunt signal about how much value Trump places with alliances. It will present liberal democratic countries with a conundrum: applauding a commendable effort by the U.S. to take action against a deplorable dictator, but uneasily standing on the sidelines as the U.S. undertakes military action alone, minimally consulting with partners and friends.

The coming days will tell us a lot about what priority human rights really holds in the Trump administration, how much alliances matter to its foreign policy team, and what messages it intends to send to other leaders around the globe. Several pivotal days in April could end up defining Trump’s foreign policy for the rest of his term.

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