The firing of about 120 American, French and English missiles into Syria, which Donald Trump called ''perfectly executed'' and Theresa May added was ''legally justified'', was – so far - the most reckless act of the 21st century.

It was reckless because the action crossed a direct red line set down by Vladimir Putin.

Putin, who is not known for making idle threats, warned that war was possible between the superpowers if Trump repeated his earlier trick of 2017 of firing missiles into Syria, as they would no longer be passive if their Syrian ally was attacked, again.

The Russians warned that this time they would respond by not only shooting down the missiles, but also, targeting the launch platforms, such as the planes, boats or submarines, they were fired from. This was especially so if Russians were killed in the American attack.


Trump took this risk – and called Putin's red line a bluff - because in his mind, Assad had, again, crossed the red line that America had set. Unlike Obama, Trump has struck Syria every time chemical weapons have been used. In 2017 Trump's attack on Syria took 20 per cent of Assad's air force. This time, Trump and his allies took three chemical research and storage-related facilities.

Such an approach not only now makes him look stronger than Putin, it also helps Trump look formidable in the forthcoming debates on Iran and their nuclear deal, as well as the ''denuclearisation'' negotiations with North Korea. The missile strikes also help distract public attention from many from the political storms that surround the president in Washington.

President Macron, of France, associated himself with the same red line of using military force if chemical weapons were used in Syria. Teresa May had not articulated the same red line, but she agreed with the other two, that chemical weapon use in Syria ''must not go unchallenged''.

May was associated with the position of the United States and France, not because of her desire to go to war, but because of her need to stand behind her friends, as they recently stood behind her country in her dispute with Russia over the attempted assassination, with another chemical weapon, of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Although Putin now looks weak to some for not following up on his red-line threat to target the launch platforms, his restraint avoided pushing the world into a global conflict.

The fact that Trump and his allies used the de-escalation hotline in advance to give some warning, and that the targets appears to have been three chemical-related facilities, at which there were hopefully no Russian casualties, may have helped. Either way, the bottom line is that Trump risked a global conflict and Putin avoided one.

Either way, the bottom line is that Trump risked a global conflict and Putin avoided one.

While it is absolutely correct that a very strong penalty should be applied to anyone who uses chemical weapons, which are inhumane, indiscriminate and illegal in international law, it is questionable whether the missile attacks have enhanced or damaged the international architecture that builds cooperation in this area.

The proof of the chemical attack, and the assignation of responsibility should have been watertight and publically available through the independent and international body tasked to make such findings, the Chemical Weapons Convention, before, not after, the attack.


While Russia was wrong to veto the latest Security Council Resolution (along with 11 other vetoes on Syria) asking the Chemical Weapons Convention to investigate the type of chemical, and attribute blame, the Russians were still willing to let the investigators investigate the type of chemical involved. At a minimum, Trump and his allies should have waited until this evidence was produced, before striking.

Trump, May and Macron say this was their only option, but that is not correct. They could have waited until the evidence was conclusive and public. They should have paused and thought laterally to fully explore all diplomatic and long-term geo-political options.

This would have entailed looking at increased sanctions, arrest warrants for those who were responsible, or expanding the western forces in the existing enclaves in Syria, or giving greater assistance to the non-terrorist enemies of Assad, or even committing to recognise and defend an independent Kurdistan, carved from Syrian territory.

None of these options, which could actually help slow the tide in the seven year old conflict in which Assad is now regaining control, after nearly half a million deaths and countless atrocities, were seen as acceptable or capable of giving instant gratification.

Rather, Trump, May and Macron went for military strikes, without publically available independent proof of the crime, which could have triggered a global conflict, despite the fact that alternative, albeit difficult and slow, pathways were - and are - open to them.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.