Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.” These were the words of Donald Trump on 10 October 2012 as he took to Twitter to attack President Obama while simultaneously criticising an American foreign policy that had, in his opinion, been premised on a principle of foreign intervention that had proven to be both costly and counterproductive. Indeed, while his record on this matter has been the subject of some contention, Trump spent most of his election campaign claiming he had been against the disastrous American invasion of Iraq from the very beginning, backing up these assertions with frequent tweets warning the Obama administration against any interventions in Syria, Iran, or other parts of the Middle East. This was precisely why for many on the isolationist Right, and for a few elements of the anti-imperialist Left, Donald Trump’s mantra of ‘America First’, replete as it was with racism and Islamophobia, nonetheless heralded a potential shift in American foreign policy that would see the country abstain from any active involvement in the wars and crises of other states.

By authorising a missile strike on a Syrian airbase earlier this week, Donald Trump has shown that such hopes were entirely misplaced. Ostensibly launched as a response to a chemical weapons attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Assad regime, that left dozens dead and hundreds more injured, the missiles represent an escalation of hostilities in the six-year old Syrian conflict, with this being the first instance of the United States directly attacking the Assad’s forces (previous American involvement in the conflict was limited to the provision of material to rebel groups and strikes on Isis). The decision to intervene in this fashion was puzzling, not least of all because of the way in which it contradicted statements made a fortnight ago by both the US Secretary of State and the Ambassador to the United Nations which signalled that the Trump administration was not committed to Assad’s ouster, choosing instead to work with his government, as well as his Russian backers, to fight Isis and other militant Islamist groups.

There are several theories that have been advanced to explain Trump’s abrupt reversal of his declared policy on Syria. The first of these takes the president’s own words at face value; in his brief statement explaining his decision, Trump claimed that he had been swayed by the images of dead children who had fallen victim to the nerve gas used in the chemical weapons attack. Similarly sympathetic arguments suggest that Trump’s willingness to act in Syria demonstrates how, contrary to popular opinion, he is willing and able to work against Russian interests. Another view, advanced by some of Trump’s most extreme and increasingly disillusioned supporters on the Far Right, suggests that the president has been forced to give in to the pressure exerted by the ‘deep state’, a term used to refer to the bureaucrats, policy wonks, and establishment politicians believed to be the prime shapers of American policy. On the other end of the political spectrum, it has been suggested that Trump’s strike on Syria is either an attempt to mobilise support for an obviously flailing presidency, or simply more evidence of the president’s fundamentally erratic and unpredictable nature

Some of these explanations make more sense than others. The idea that Donald Trump suddenly underwent a massive change of heart after seeing pictures of dead children, for example, seems improbable, not least of all because the president remains a man whose adamant opposition to welcoming Syrian refugees to the United States is symptomatic of a broader indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people. Indeed, Trump had little to say about the children murdered by American special forces during a botched raid in Yemen that killed 30 civilians in January 2017. While there may be kernels of truth hidden in each of the other explanations listed above, however, the reasons behind why Trump chose to act in this manner ultimately have little bearing on the fact that American intervention in the conflict is likely going to make things worse.

At this point, it is not clear if the Trump administration intends to pursue further military options in Syria. Should they do so, however, there is little reason to believe that American involvement in the conflict will not go down the same route as previous interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In all these cases, flimsy intelligence and outright falsehoods provided a pretext for military action that succeeded in dislodging the regimes they targeted, but also succeeded in creating vacuums of political authority that bred instability and conflict. Indeed, the rise of Isis itself could be reasonably traced back to the poor post-war planning and cynical co-optation of local militant groups in Iraq by the United States following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government. As has always been the case, the rhetoric of liberal or ‘humanitarian’ intervention, relentlessly propagated by a largely uncritical mainstream media, provided ideological cover for military action driven primarily by a desire to secure and protect American interests in the Middle East and North Africa. A similar process appears to be unfolding this week, as media outlets previously critical of Trump have jumped on the jingoistic bandwagon that usually accompanies declarations of war, praising Trump for his ‘presidential’ and ‘statesmanlike’ decision to do something about the barbaric Assad regime.

Therein lies the rub, however. Anti-imperialists who oppose US intervention in Syria are absolutely right to point towards the country’s previous imperial endeavours as reason enough to be sceptical of American intentions and, indeed, capacity (for post-war planning and reconstruction). However, to take this entirely warranted scepticism of American foreign policy as justification for extending unconditional support to Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers is unconscionable. One of the unfortunate effects of a conflict like the one in Syria, with all its complexity and with the existence of parallel but entirely contradictory narratives, is a tendency to underplay the tragic human cost of the war by reducing everything to a binary argument over statistics and labels. While there may be reason to question allegations of atrocities levelled against Assad (no less a personage than Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has called for a more robust investigation into whether Assad’s forces were indeed responsible for the chemical weapons attack last week), to suggest that he, his regime, and his backers do not have blood on their hands is completely ludicrous. Isis and the various rebel groups fighting Assad are certainly responsible for perpetrating war crimes against Syrian civilians, but it is ultimately the regime that is responsible for most of the almost 300,000 civilian deaths in the conflict. That its forces may have killed ‘only’ 100,000 people instead of 200,000 can hardly be used as a defence, just as it would be absurd to uncritically accept the regime’s contention that it only targets ‘terrorists’. The fact that Assad may or may not have used chemical weapons last week has no bearing on the undeniable fact that he has presided over the wholescale butchery of his people.

So, what it is to be done? Should one support yet another cynical and probably self-defeating American war to bring ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to the Middle East, or should one throw their weight behind the fanatically brutal Assad regime? This is not an easy question to answer, if indeed it can be answered at all. As many who are far more well-informed about the Syrian conflict than myself have been pointing out, any window of opportunity that might have existed to end the war, either by extending more full-throated support to the moderate groups that initiated the uprising against Assad six years ago, or by engaging with the regime in a more constructive way before so much blood was spilled, is no longer available. What is clear is that the understandable anti-imperialist opposition to the United States cannot be an excuse to legitimise the morally indefensible actions of Assad and his backers. There must be another way, and it is the world’s collective responsibility to find it if there is to be any justice for the countless children killed in Syria.