5 Tough Questions about Attacking Syria

What should be done about Syria? That is the main political issue facing the U.S. Congress and the American people this week. Its answer will have implications for the entire international community.

Obama-GalesburgBack in August of 2012 President Obama stated before the White House Press Corps,

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [that] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. … That would change my calculations significantly.

That line has now been crossed with confirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian town of Saraqeb last month coupled with claims by the President that “well over 1000 people were murdered.” Barack Obama has called for limited military action against Syria, and the world nervously waits to see what form that action will take.

136614_600Obama’s options are limited, and some very difficult questions must be faced. The most pressing questions, in my view, are the following:

1)   Should the U.S. take action with regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons?

The simple answer is “Yes … in principle.” The United States, along with 137 nations is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibits “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” as well as “the use of bacteriological methods of warfare.” All of these nations are bound by a common pledge to condemn the use of chemical weapons during warfare.

There is, however, one very big problem. The Geneva Protocol does not state the kind of response to be made upon violation of the agreement, nor does it state who can authorize that response. As the Washington Post’sFact Checker” column noted last week,

Such treaties generally do not have mechanisms for enforcement. As far as we know, no nation has ever attacked another to punish it for the use of chemical weapons, so Obama’s request is unprecedented.

2)   Can the U.S. take action unilaterally against Syria?

hans_blixAgain, the answer is Yes … but with a few caveats. Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq from 2000–2003, offered this cautionary warning to the U.S. in an interview just last week:

They talk about enforcing a norm, the ban on the use of chemical weapons. … [But] I don’t think the world community has appointed the U.S. or the U.K. or anybody else to be the policeman to police these norms. It’s the [U.N.] Security Council that is the world’s policeman. … And the [U.N.] Charter forbids member states to use the force or threat to use the force against others unless they are acting in self-defense against an armed aggression or the have the authorization of the Security Council.

Hans Blix acknowledges that the Security Council had been “a rather poor policeman.” President Obama made specific reference to this fact in announcing his intent to take independent action against Syria, saying

I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.

Nevertheless, unless the United States is able to convince the world community that in attacking Syria it is acting in its own self-defence, it will be violating the U.N. Charter. This in itself will not be enough to raise international condemnation, but it will have practical consequences. As Blix cautioned in his interview,

if U.S. goes alone here and not adheres to the standards of the charter, it will weaken the U.S. It will isolate the U.S. in the world.

3)   Must the President have the approval of Congress to take action against Syria?

The answer in this instance is Yes … and No. Article One, Section eight of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress hall have power to … declare war.” As a recent article in qPolitics states,

A simple reading of this could lead one to the conclusion that the President should not have the right to begin military action without congressional approval, even if there is no formal declaration of war. From this perspective, military intervention in Syria would need to be approved by Congress.

Yet the article goes on to note that the United States has fought numerous wars, battles, and skirmishes over the years. Only five of these were “declared” wars (the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the two World Wars). Other “undeclared” wars have also received congressional authorization, including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In addition, “there have been over 100 military actions throughout our history that did not have specific approval from Congress.” [emphasis added] To sum up, in America’s history

military action has been undertaken under all three of these circumstances, i.e. declared wars, congressionally approved wars and wars based on Presidential or executive branch initiative.

Which category would military action against Syria most likely fit under? The author offers this observation:

In today’s context, we could see that if the President wanted to employ the military to rescue American hostages seized overseas, he should not have to go to Congress to get authorization. He would need to be able to act quickly, maintain an element of surprise, and be free to act. On the other hand, involving the country in a major war would certainly require congressional approval. In the long run, Congress would need to pay the bills. War is too important to fight without the support of the people.

Actually, the issue need not even be debated in this instance. Although President Obama claims that he has the right to take military action against Syria with or without the approval of Congress, has nevertheless decided to ask Congress for its approval. In his address on August 31, Obama stated,

I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.

4)   What are the objectives in mounting a strike against Syria?

On this question the answer is not at all clear. Is a military strike primarily intended to deliver a message of moral condemnation against the Syrian regime? Is it intended to send a warning to other bodies (such as Iran and Hezbollah) of what will happen if they ever use chemical weapons themselves? Is it intended to punish Assad’s government and support the rebel movement in Syria? Is it intended to so cripple the Assad regime that will lead to its downfall?

How extensive would such a strike be? Would it target government offices? Would it target Assad’s own residence? Would it target military installations alone, or airports, communications structures, and other Syrian infrastructure? These are all unknown. If the action is too limited, it may be regarded as only a slap on the wrist and ineffectual. If it is too extensive, America may be viewed as an aggressor by other powers.

At this point it is quite difficult to gauge what would be the most appropriate level of action and how it would be perceived by others. (See the recent article in Foreign Policy)

5)   What are the potential consequences?

The answer to this is almost impossible to gauge. If Congress fails to approve President Obama’s request, he will no doubt appear weak, and American foreign policy may be perceived as ineffectual. It may even encourage the Assad regime and other powers to believe they can use chemical weapons with impunity in future conflicts. However, if Congress should approve military strike against Syria, the consequences could be far worse.

Ezra Klein in The Washington Post recently enumerated “10 things that could go very wrong if we attack Syria.” Briefly put,

1. American strikes could result in heavy civilian casualties. Even when aimed at designated military targets, intelligence can be faulty, missiles can go off course, and civilians will inevitably be caught in the blast.

2. U.S. strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians. If the strikes weaken the Assad regime, it may step up its efforts to regain the upper hand, resulting in many more casualties.

3. U.S. strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians with chemical weapons. Rather than admitting defeat, Assad could double down on his attacks in an act of defiance against America.

4. The attacks may be limited and Assad easily survives them. If the attacks are not damaging enough, Assad could emerge as a defiant “hero” with even greater strength.

5. American intervention could topple Assad, and Syria would become America’s problem. Klein cites the “Pottery Barn Rule” – “you break it, you buy it” – from the Iraq war.

6. There could be reprisals. The Syrian army, or sympathizers like Hezbolah, could decide to exact revenge by launching terrorist attacks against American interests elsewhere in the world.

7. Assad could fall and the chemical weapons end up in the wrong hands. Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons is kept hidden. If his regime collapses, the opposition wouldn’t know where these weapons are. But his top loyalists would, and the weapons would soon appear on the black market.

8. The Assad regime could fall only to be replaced by chaos. Once they are in a position to do so, the rebels will almost certainly exact revenge against those in the Assad regime, and there could be much further bloodshed as rival factions begin jockeying for control.

9. Assad could fall only to be replaced by something worse. What if the Al Nusra Front, which claims allegiance to al Qaeda, wins the resulting power struggle, or has a major role in the coalition? What then?

10. How extensively will the strikes escalate the conflict? This final point is not stated as a “could be” scenario. Further escalation in the Syrian conflict is a certainty. Klein states,

Almost everything that could go wrong points towards the same ultimate response: Escalation. That could mean more bombing, or actual ground troops, or some combination. But the key fear behind intervening in Syria is that even constrained missions can unexpectedly break free of their limits.

America still remembers how direct American involvement in the Vietnam conflict led step by step to an intractable long-term military commitment that saw thousands of Americans losing their lives. More recently, they remember how America’s engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not lead to any quick resolutions, became difficult to withdraw from, and ended up costing far too many American lives. War has a habit of getting messy, spilling over into new conflicts, and creating even greater regional instability.

Americans are weary of the adventurism of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. They are hesitant to commit to new protracted military engagements. And for good reason. The consequences may be hard to foresee, but they are very real and costly.

Cartoon credit: Star Tribune

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

One Response to 5 Tough Questions about Attacking Syria

  1. laeuchli2 says:

    This post is a great analysis of some of the complex issues involved in the Syria debate. I think that it is important to look at the issue, as you have done, outside of the normal political prisms that many people use, especially whether they generally support the President or not.

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