With all signs indicating that the United States is gearing up for an attack on Syria, it is worth taking a moment to consider the pros and cons of yet another military intervention in the Middle East.
While there is an understandable urge to “do something” in response to the tragic violence being perpetrated by the Syrian regime, the reality is that launching cruise missiles into Syria will result in even more civilian casualties, more pain and more suffering. Further, the reality on the ground is far from clear, with lies and propaganda emanating from all sides of the conflict and little clarity on who is even responsible for some of the worst atrocities.
The latest war crime in Syria to capture the world’s attention was the apparent chemical-weapons attack that was carried out in a suburb of Damascus last week. Hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed in the incident, for which the U.S. has unequivocally blamed the Bashar al-Assad regime. This blame has been assigned despite a lack of conclusive evidence as to who may have been responsible, with the Syrian government blaming armed rebels and Syrian allies such as Russia leaving open the possibility that a third party may have been responsible.
A senior Obama administration official said Sunday however that there was “very little doubt” that Assad’s military forces had used the chemical weapons and that a Syrian promise to allow United Nations inspectors access to the site was “too late to be credible.” The U.S. concluded that evidence at the scene has likely been compromised due to continued Syrian shelling and the resulting dissipation of any poison gases.
With President Obama having previously stated that the use of chemical weapons by Syria in the two-year old civil war would be a “red line” for the United States which could necessitate military action, the White House has said in recent days that the U.S. could launch an attack with or without UN Security Council backing.
“We’ll consult with the UN. They’re an important avenue. But they’re not the only avenue,” a senior administration official said. Another option the U.S. is considering is working with NATO and Arab League allies.
A list of possible targets for a military strike has been circulating in the White House since late last week and in recent days, the Pentagon has moved more warships into place in the eastern Mediterranean. U.S. war planners have updated military options that include cruise-missile strikes on regime targets, officials said.
So far, indications are that the U.S. intervention in Syria would be limited in scope, intended to keep the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war. The attack would primarily serve as punishment for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, according to the Washington Post.
“Make no mistake,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday. “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
There are several problems with this approach, not to mention the glaring inconsistencies in U.S. policies that should raise eyebrows. For one thing, it stretches credulity for the United States to respond with such outrage over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, when the U.S. is itself guilty of routinely using weapons that most of the world considers to be fairly heinous – including white phosphorus, cluster bombs and depleted uranium.
The U.S. use of these weapons in Iraq has long been a cause for concern to the international community, and recent information coming to light about the long-term effects of depleted uranium has renewed calls for this weapon to be unambiguously banned under international law. In Fallujah – which was targeted mercilessly by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at the close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A decade after the war in Iraq was launched it is common today in areas exposed to depleted uranium for newborns to come out with massive multiple systemic defects, immune problems, central nervous system problems, heart problems and skeletal disorders. There are even cases of babies being born with two heads, with half of their internal organs outside of their bodies, or with just one eye.
Due to depleted uranium’s horrifying effects that linger long after conflicts are over, a 2002 UN working paper argued that its use may breach one or more of the following treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions including Protocol I, the Convention on Conventional Weapons of 1980, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Yet, U.S. officials don’t even blush when they cite international law and international norms in the case for military action against Syria. “What we are talking about here is a potential response . . . to this specific violation of international norms,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “This international norm cannot be violated without consequences,” Kerry said.
But how many international norms might be violated once the U.S. starts shooting missiles into Syria? How many civilian casualties will be acceptable from the U.S. point of view in order to “punish Assad” for the civilian casualties for which he might be responsible?
These questions cut to the core of “just war” theory, the criteria that must be met for military campaigns to be considered justified. Some of those core criteria include:
- Just cause, for example protecting innocent life from imminent from harm (punishing people who have committed wrongs is not included under this criterion)
- Right intention, i.e., force being used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose
- Probability of success, which speaks to the need for a clear objective and prohibition of using force in the pursuit of futile causes
- Last resort, i.e., force may only be used after all other alternatives have been exhausted
- Proportionality, with the anticipated benefits of waging a war being proportionate to its expected evils or harms
While the U.S. might now be insisting that any possible military strike will be “limited in scope,” thus maintaining proportionality, the thing is, we have heard those sorts of assurances before, only to be told later that the mission has shifted and expanded.
In 2011, when the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians, for example, the U.S. and its allies quickly construed that authorization to justify a policy of regime change. With little public debate, Barack Obama, and his British and French counterparts David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy published a joint op-ed that argued that “so long as Gaddafi is in power, NATO and its coalition partners must maintain their operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds.”
They continued: “Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. For that transition to succeed, Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good.”
Following the overthrow of Gaddafi, the Libyan state collapsed with one of the results being the complete loss of control over Libya’s stockpile of weapons. Arms quickly spread from Libya at an “alarming rate,” according to a UN report published last April, serving to fuel conflicts in Mali, Syria and elsewhere, while also boosting the arsenals of extremists and criminals in the region.
While it’s possible that after more than a decade of being on a war footing the U.S. has finally learned its lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and is therefore choosing only a limited bombing campaign against Syria, it’s also possible that policymakers in Washington simply feel they have no choice left but to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels.
These rebels, however, are probably not the most reliable partners and if they are to succeed in overthrowing the Assad regime, might be no more friendly to the United States than the current gang of thugs in Damascus.
Another concern is that U.S. involvement could push Syrian allies Russia, China, Iran or Hezbollah to take a stance in defense of Assad against the West, with the real potential for the conflict to spiral out of control.
In short, there are no good prospects when it comes to U.S. intervention in Syria, only a series of bad prospects. The question is, will it be Iraq-bad, Afghanistan-bad, or Libya-bad? Or perhaps, will it be a whole new category that we come to call Syria-bad?
As hard as it might be to idly watch the tragedy in Syria unfold, the urge to “do something,” which as the U.S. understands the term usually involves firing cruise missiles and blowing things up, ought to be resisted. The best hope in Syria is for a ceasefire on all sides, and U.S. intervention will only make that hope a more distant prospect – not to mention the certainty that it will lead to more death and destruction.