Syria (2 of 3): On the brink of a military attack

The Syrian conflict has caused a huge civilian suffering since spring 2011 with battles, massacres, widespread torture and forced disappearances, displacement of populations and a break-down of important structures like the health and education systems. More than 100,000 people have dead and more than one third of the population has been displaced, and tensions in the region have soared. 

The military attack seems to be (hopefully) on hold now, after the US and Russia agreement over the Syrian chemical weapons program. However there are reasons to keep this conflict this conflict now and for the future, due to an array of reasons. Firstly, the conflict is far from resolved and internal, regional and international actors continue (and will do so in the near future) playing their interests there. Violence is far from gone. This welcomed agreement cannong make us forget that we (the world) have been on the brink of another potentially catastrophic intervention in the Middle East. And issues of international legality, external intervention, power, management of arms control and proliferation, and humanitarian responsibility, are still here.

Why was an external intervention considered now?

Last year, the US president Barack Obama signaled that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line” in the face of the international community. It was after the August chemical attack with about 1.000 people dead when statements and negotiations about a strong (military) international response soared.

Military action was first proposed by the US, UK and France to deter further actions by the Assad regime. The underlying arguments are: the regime has crossed the ‘red line’ and it is imperative to deter it and other actors from eventually using those weapons; International Law bans chemical weapons and action is imperative; we must protect the Syrians from further massacres; the credibility of the West is at stake, etc.

Finally the British Government could not go ahead due to the rejection of military action by the Parliament, on August 29, and president Obama spent time seeking approval from Congress. France said it was still prepared to take action at any moment.

Different military options were considered and finally the decision involved the use of limited air strikes to enforce a no-fly zone, control the arsenal of chemical weapons and further support for the rebel groups although not to the point of ‘regime change’.

In the first days of September the US Government seemed to rush towards getting Congress approval. But a new Russian diplomatic initiative has apparently allowed to gain (at least) some time as it proposes a 4 step plan to put Syrian weapons and chemical program under control of international observers.

Russia and the US reached an agreement about the Syrian chemical arsenal and disarmament on September 14.

In short: The Syrian chemical weapons program

Syria possession of a chemical weapons arsenal has never been in doubt, although its location and size have been subject to high degrees of speculation. Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) neither ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It has never formally admitted the stock or made a formal declaration about it (similar to Israel with its nuclear program).

A recent report from the US Congressional Research Service says Syria began stockpiling chemical weapons in 1972 or 1973, when Egypt gave the country a small number of chemicals and delivery systems before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Later it got the help of the Soviet Union. According to a French intelligence assessment published in September 2013, Damascus has more than 1,000 Tm of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, with stockpiles dispersed across some 50 different towns and cities. The exact size is not known despite statements.

Main analytic and legal arguments

Pro Military Action

A military intervention is legal or legitimate when facing crimes against humanity because there is a moral reason to act; Law needs to evolve to address new situations

  • President Obama and allied leaders should declare that international law has evolved and there are compelling moral reasons to bomb Syria even without Security Council approval. 
  • Jurist Geoffrey Robertson argues that “the Security Council is an unsatisfactory tribunal to decide urgent moral questions because it can be rendered ineffective by politics” (as, some authors suggest, is happening now with the Russia and China positions).

An attack with a widely forbidden weapon as chemicals needs an international response as a way to end impunity and to prevent further use

  • President Obama: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” “What is the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the government of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”
  • Richard Haas argues that “chemical weapons, like any weapon of mass destruction, including biological and nuclear, cannot become a normal weapon, cannot be used. The taboo, the barrier cannot in any way be diluted. This far transcends Syria.”
  • If United States does not act decisively now, it will be revisiting same issue months later when conflict worsens and Assad uses these weapons again.

It is necessary to defend American and Western interests in the region

  • American interests in Syria are clear: preventing terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons; depriving Iran of its most important ally and staging-base in the Middle East; and preventing al Qaeda from establishing an uncontested safe haven in the Levant. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which President Obama’s proposed “limited strike” will secure these interests, but not about whether the interests are real or vital.
  • If Congress does not agree to conduct military strikes, United States will have closed door on having any serious influence in Syria.

It is a decision on limited strikes, of last resort, and taken without further desire to involve in more wars

  • Secretary Kerry: “I remember Iraq. Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq. General Dempsey especially remembers Iraq…And so we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence.”

 Against Military Action

External military intervention is not legal nor ethical

  • The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has insisted the use of force will only be legal if it is self-defense or undertaken with authorization from the UN Security Council, as set out in the UN Charter. He is probably the most prominent voice heard in this regard.
  • An attack on Syria without UN Security Council authorization sets a more dangerous precedent than Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
  • Syria is not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the essence of the 1925 Geneva Protocol was to ban use of chemical weapons in international war, not in civil conflict or use against non-combatants.
  • U.S. enforcement of international law is selective and invoked only when it serves its aims. How can a leading international law breaker seek to hold Syria to a higher standard than it sets for itself?

The main objective of any action undertaken should be the safety of the Syrian population and a political solution for the conflict. Both would be undermined by an attack

  • International Crisis Group: At best, the impact of a military strike would have “unpredictable” consequences for Syrians. Only a ceasefire and political solution can secure the “welfare of the Syrian people.”
  • African Forum: Multilateralism and the Rule of International Law are the best and only ways to achieve a political way out of the Syrian crisis.

Why a red line on chemical weapons now?

  • Red lines have been crossed more than once”: Iraq used them both on war with Iran and at home; and during the 2003 Iraq war, the US itself used white phosphorous (considered a chemical weapon when used directly against soldiers).

Why the red line only affects chemical weapons?

  • Why this red line? With over a hundred thousand dead, over five million people displaced by civil war, and atrocities of diverse kinds, why focus on chemical weapons?  Is it that deaths by chemical weapons are somehow more appalling and outrageous? Why is it that a death toll greater than 5,000, 10,000 or 100,000 does not cross a red line, but the deaths from chemical weapons do?

There is not enough evidence about authorship of the attack

  • Intelligence pointing toward Assad’s culpability in August 21 chemical weapons strike is not compelling enough. Having in mind the red line set up by the US it is difficult to see the advantages of their use for the regime, and Russia had warned before about other possibilities.
  • The rebels also have chemical weapons, obtained from different sources.

Limited aerial strikes would not affect (except for worse) the situation on the ground and will reinforce the regime 

Intervention would lead the US to go deeper in this conflict and possibly become trapped there

  • If it doesn’t work, if there is another atrocity—chemical or otherwise—can the Administration sit back and not do more?