By: Ana Tarlas
WASHINGTON, DC–President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike in Syria earlier this month to protect the citizens of a country he denied refugee resettlement status to within the first 30 days of his presidency.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons against citizens in north-western Syria that killed 89 people. The chemical attack resulted in the first U.S. military strike in Syria since the civil war started six years ago.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said to reporters at Mar-a-Lago, hours after authorizing the strike. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Some critics say Trump’s remarks are contradictory because of his previous executive order halting refugee resettlement.
“I think it’s contradicting that he had that press conference where he was giving the reasons why he wanted to attack Assad, because he was gassing beautiful babies, but then he won’t let those same children enter the country,” said Stephen Babbitt, American University senior studying Middle Eastern policy.
Since his official campaign began more than two years ago, Trump talked about how he was determined to defeat ISIS, the Islamic extremist group that has taken control of many Middle Eastern cities, including parts of Syria.
One of the first executive orders signed by Trump halted the process of refugee resettlement for four months, and suspended admittance of Syrian refugees indefinitely. Trump said it was to prevent radical Islamic terrorism and members of ISIS making their way into the U.S.
Hurubie Meko, staffer at the refugee resettlement agency U.S. Church World Services (CWS) said that given Trump’s executive order, resettlement agencies everywhere are required to stop work on open cases. Refugees making their way to the U.S. cannot continue the process of their resettlement until after the four-month period is over, meaning most of the paperwork will expire, requiring refugee’s and resettlement agencies to begin the process all over again. This excludes Syrians, as they will still not be able to receive resettlement once the four-month halt is over.
The civil war in Syria began nearly seven years ago when pro-democracy protests erupted in the country, challenging the Assad regime. Government forces under the Assad regime responded violently to the protests by opening fire on demonstrators. This eventually resulted in a civil war between the citizens of Syria and the oppressive Assad regime.
Over the course of the six years, Assad has bombed Syrian hospitals, elementary schools, and other public places in Syria with chemical weapons. In his address to the nation after authorizing the missile strike, Trump said that the Syrian government violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). CWC is an arms treaty that prohibits the use and production of chemical weapons. Syria signed the treaty in September 2013.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since the civil war began in 2011, the Syria conflict has created the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. Pre-war, the country had a population of 20 million. Now, over 13 million people are displaced, about 6.6 million remain internally displaced in Syria. 5 million have fled to neighboring countries: Turkey, 2.9 million; Lebanon, 1.1 million; Jordan, 700,000.
Trump ordered for 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a Syrian airfield at 3:40 a.m. local time. Trump’s order came as a surprise to many, as he had previously rejected the idea of military action against the Assad regime and Syrian government. But, Trump said after seeing photos emerge of babies choking to death on toxic gas, his opinions changed on military action in Syria.
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies – babies – little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines,” Trump said.
Babbitt agreed that Trump’s actions directly contradicted his stance on refugees and immigrants. However, he said there is a time and a place for worrying about a president’s hypocrisy, and this isn’t one of them.
“I have to put that aside a little bit,” Babbitt said about Trump. “In the end, these Syrians aren’t going to care about an American politician’s hypocrisy, they are going to care if they can live for the next day.”
Babbitt has extensively studied the Middle East and lived in Jordan for a brief period. He speaks Arabic, and is studying U.S. foreign policy. He has worked at the State Department and counter-terrorism organizations.
The recent missile launch sparked inklings that the U.S. will officially put boots on the ground and go to war with Syria. Babbitt said that war with Syria would only benefit the U.S. and Syria if the cause of war was purely humanitarian. Babbitt said though the U.S. often invades countries proclaiming it is for humanitarian need, that is often not the case.
“I think that too many times when we’ve gone to war in the Middle East, it’s been for various other reasons like material and regional allies,” Babbitt said. “But if we go there just for the sole purpose of humanitarian intervention, I think the outcome would be better.”
Babbitt also said that after studying political patterns in Europe and the U.S., there is a widespread far-right wing movement sweeping the countries. Currently, Europe is experiencing a surge in far-right parties and Neo-Nazi political parties. Though Babbitt said there are some conditional variables as to why there is a rise in these parties, the biggest cause for the far-right insurgency in Europe is because of the influx of Syrian refugees resulting from the civil war.
“That’s a huge effect of refugees that the Syrian war has had on the globe with the rise of these parties, and people like Donald trump who are very anti-immigrant and anti-refugee,” Babbitt said.
Neighboring countries to Syria are overwhelmed with the increase of migrants and refugees. Refugee resettlement advocates say that if you properly resettle the refugees fleeing from Syria, countries will benefit rather than collapse.
Meko said the process of what is happening in Europe is completely different than what refugee resettlement is like in the U.S. Refugees from Syria cannot come to the U.S. by boat or foot, so the Syrians resettled here go through an extremely vetted process.
“Refugee resettlement in the U.S. is not what is happening in Europe with migrants and refugees just kind of showing up at the borders and just getting into a safe country, and getting asylum or requesting asylum,” Meko said. “It’s a heavily vetted process.”
Meko added that asylum is granted to refugees with the most need, or in the most danger. Most of the refugees being resettled by host countries are women and children.
The U.S. president releases a number for perspective refugees that the country will commit to resettle each year. At the start of the fiscal year, the Obama administration committed to settle 110,000 refugees in the U.S. The ceiling for refugee resettlement was reduced by more than half as the Trump administration committing to resettle 50,000 refugees, the lowest in 35 years. The Obama administration set a goal to resettle 10 thousand Syrian refugees during on fiscal year of his presidency, a goal that was accomplished.
Babbitt said he doesn’t think there is any way for Syria to prosper and function with Assad in power after the destruction he caused his nation.
“I don’t think that Syria will ever be able to be a functioning recognizable state unless Assad is gone, either dead or exiled or in some French villa somewhere,” he said. “I don’t think that they’ll be able to accept the things that he’s done to them and let him become a leader again.”
Babbitt also is hopeful that if the U.S. ends up in a war in Syria, we are accommodating to the country’s needs, instead of going for U.S. advancement or to curb Russian power. Often, Babbitt said humanitarian aid is ineffective because it is not strictly humanitarian aid. The best way to secure Syria and restore order is to work on behalf of the Syrian people.
“I think that a lot of people need to just focus on what people in Syria need, rather than what we think is best for them.”