At this point, it would appear all but certain that the United States, along with whatever allies in the end decide to join with us, is planning to commence military action against Syria. The goal is not “regime change,” but deterrence, that is, preventing Syria from further use of weapons of mass destruction, aka in these circumstances, chemical weapons. At the moment, this would seem to be the best spin we can put on any decision for military action on the part of the US and its friends.
There are, however, other points of view to consider. The United Nations will not officially agree to sanction such military action, because Syria’s ally, Russia, will not agree to it. As a result, if the Obama Administration does decide to commence with missile attacks, it will have to be with other justification. The Chemical Weapons Treaty, implemented in 1993 with 189 signatories, is designed to protect member states from the use of chemical weapons. And while Syria never signed it, the United States did. Does this, then, give us “legal cover” to attack another country? Additionally, the Arab League has not called for military action, as much as it has condemned the use of chemical weapons. There is, in fact, no argument on the part of any responsible state regarding the utterly abhorrent use of chemical weapons. But is it absolutely certain that the Assad government ordered their use? There appears to remain at least some measure of doubt in this regard. And, even if it were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Assad ordered their use, what to do about it is still another matter.
From all reports, it would seem that the planned US military action is designed to be limited to missile strikes which will, in theory at least, provide a deterrence against further use of chemical weapons. Are such limited strikes even possible, it can be asked, and exactly how far do they go and what good will they do? Will they, in the end, even accomplish their stated goal, or will they serve merely to further inflame an already highly volatile region?
One of the many complications faced by the United States and its allies is that only some of the insurgents in this civil war want anything like what we might term democratic processes to take place in Syria’s future. We know that Al Qaeda has, in fact, infiltrated a number of factions within the Syrian opposition, and it is absolutely imperative that the United States not give aid and assistance to them. Another question to consider is what benefit do we think might accrue to the United States from such military action, if it is to take place? What are the pluses, as opposed to the whole set of minuses, that we might hope for?
The stated goal of the United States thus far in the civil war is to do what it can to equip and train those pro-western forces within the Syrian opposition. Whether or not we have been successful in this so far is anyone’s guess. But yet another purpose that the US may have in deciding to strike militarily is to show to the world, and perhaps Iran in particular (and, in a more round-about way, Israel), that we will respond once a stated “red line” has been crossed. But was it wise in the first place to draw such a line in the sand? Surely, there are other ways to state policy forcefully and emphatically than by essentially painting yourself into a corner, and then feeling forced to act in accordance with what you are on record as having said. It could also be added, although not everyone agrees on the particulars, that it is up to Congress to declare war, not the president. And what else can a military attack on another country be called, except a kind of declaration of war? The only exception is in case of immediate need for self-defense, which hardly appears to pertain in this case.
There is no doubt, and no argument, that the use of chemical weapons is an outrage. Just as, by the way, blowing people up with bombs and artillery fire is – a thing which the Assad regime has been doing for a long time now. And although it is perhaps too horrible to say, people who die from an artillery attack are just as dead as those who die from chemical weapons. Even so, whether it makes sense or not, there seems to be a general consensus that so-called weapons of mass destruction are more heinous and more abhorrent than ordinary weapons of destruction.
So, the question remains, should the US, and whatever allies might join in with us, commence air strikes against the Syrian government, both as a retaliation for the use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent against the future use of them? If I were an advisor to the President, my counsel to him would have to be “no.” At least not without UN sanction, and even then only if a truly viable coalition of nations were to go in on it together. Which is exactly the way it happened in 2011 with regard to Libya.
But as things currently stand, there is no unequivocal, world-wide consensus, and no clear indication that missile strikes will achieve the desired end anyway. They may well only cause further chaos and havoc in a region of the world that is already highly inflamed and insecure. Additionally, the history of such quick hits on the part of the United States has hardly been a completely positive one. If anyone needs proof of this, just think back to the 1983 strike against Lebanon, the 1986 airstrike against Libya, and the use of cruise missiles and bombs against Iraq in 1989. None of these “strategic strikes” brought any lasting positive results. Quite the opposite, in fact, could be argued. Add to this mix now the fact that Russia has just today ordered several warships into the eastern Mediterranean, and we can see how quickly tensions might escalate.
As abominable and reprehensible as the use of chemical weapons is, the question very much remains as to whether missile strikes on the part of the United States might yet further destabilize and inflame an already unstable region. If the United States were to begin military strikes, and if we were – even against our will — ultimately drawn into yet another Middle East conflagration, the end of which is unclear at best, those who currently call for missiles would be the first to condemn Pres. Obama for getting us into yet another quagmire. As easy as it is to understand the impulse to strike out at a regime that is willing to kill its own people for political gain, let us remember that, so far at least, our record in dealing with such regimes has not in the end proved highly effective or been widely applauded, either by those in the countries themselves, or by the rest of the world.