By Jonathan Lahdo
Jonathan Lahdo is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania studying business and international studies.
On Tuesday, April 4th, the world was taken aback by news of a chemical attack in Syria that killed scores of innocent civilians. It has now been estimated that over 80 were killed in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in the north-west of the country by exposure to deadly chemical weapons.  According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), at least two different chemical weapons were used, one of which caused symptoms very similar to those of sarin gas, though their tests remain inconclusive and the exact chemicals used have not yet been determined. 
Aside from the details of the horrific events, one main question remained: Who was responsible for these attacks?
The international community has by and large, save of course for Syria’s primary allies Russia and Iran, come to the consensus that this was orchestrated by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his regime. Al-Assad denies claims that his government was responsible for these attacks, and, along with Russia and Iran, has said that “the casualties were caused when a conventional air strike on an al-Qaeda weapons depot nearby caused an explosion, releasing the deadly gases.” 
Acting on the assumption that Al-Assad was in fact at fault for these horrendous deaths, President Donald Trump responded by ordering an airstrike three days following the use of the chemical weapons on the strategic Syrian airbase of Shayrat from which the attacks were allegedly launched. In his own words, President Trump said that "it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” 
The powers that have stood behind the President of the United States’ decision have a clear basis for their support on a moral and a strategic level. For a state to attack its own innocent civilians is morally deplorable, and the rationale behind the strike was a practical response to an inexcusable action to show that there are real consequences for committing such atrocities. 
Despite what many would consider to be logical premises for such a response, its legality remains a pertinent question.
Within the United States, the constitutionality of the decision is called into question.The Constitution does grant Congress the power to declare war, though Presidents in recent history have creatively interpreted “their own constitutional role as commander-in-chief in order to engage in military action without congressional approval.” 
On an international level, there has also been criticism of the Trump administration and of the legality of its decision. Russia was unsurprisingly vocal in its defence of the Syrian government, saying that an international group confirmed in 2013 that “the Syrian Army has no chemical weapons,” making reference to the OPCW’s agreement with Syria in 2013 to destroy all chemical weapons that were being processed at the time.  From a more objective standpoint, however, Bolivian ambassador Sacha Llorenti considered Trump’s strike to be a gross violation of international law, referencing the UN charter as he said it “prohibits unilateral actions.” 
Overall, it is currently too early to come to a decisive conclusion on whether this can be considered a legal response, given that the Trump administration has yet to make public its own legal justification for the matter. It is clear, however, that there are conflicting opinions on all sides, and that precedents based on ambiguous interpretations of the law could have been used to justify a controversial move in foreign policy.
 “Syria 'chemical attack': What we know”. BBC News. 20th April, 2017. Accessed 21st April, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39500947
 Bill Chapel. “Russia Says U.S. Broke International Law In Striking Syria, Citing 'Pretext'”. NPR. 7th April, 2017. Accessed 21st April, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/07/522982477/russia-says-u-s-broke-international-law-in-striking-syria-citing-pretext
 Bethan McKernan. “France says it has proof Assad carried out chemical attack that killed 86”. The Independent. 19th April, 2017. Accessed 21st April, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-assad-chemical-attack-france-says-it-has-proof-khan-sheikhoun-a7691476.html
 Mark Katkov, “Trump Orders Syria Airstrikes After 'Assad Choked Out The Lives' Of Civilians”. NPR. 6th April, 2017. Accessed 21st April, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/04/06/522948481/u-s-launches-airstrikes-against-syria-after-chemical-attack
 Ryan Lizza. “Was Trump’s Strike on Syria Legal?”. The New Yorker. 7th April, 2017. Accessed 21st April, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/news/ryan-lizza/was-trumps-strike-on-syria-legal
 Lauren Carroll. “Trump's Syria airstrikes: constitutional or not?”. PolitiFact. 7th April, 2017. Accessed 21st April, 2017. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/apr/07/trumps-syria-airstrikes-constitutional-or-not/
Photo Credit: Flickr User The White House
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