Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Dourit, August 17, 2013. Picture taken August 17, 2013. (Reuters/Khattab Abdulaa)
The images filtering out of the eastern suburbs of Damascus on August 21 were horrifying. Uploaded by residents using cellphones and video cameras to YouTube and other social media, they depict hundreds of Syrian civilians victimized by a chemical weapons rocket barrage, writhing in pain, foaming at the mouth and dying, with no visible wounds of the sort that would arise from conventional weapons. Doctors Without Borders has confirmed over 300 killed and said the symptoms “strongly indicate” that neurotoxic agents were used.
As we go to press, a swelling chorus of condemnation, led by the Western powers and including the Obama administration, has laid blame for the attack squarely on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The administration’s desire to uphold the international convention banning the use of chemical weapons is commendable, but so far there’s no independent verification of the Assad regime’s responsibility. Even so, Washington is reportedly preparing limited military action against Syrian government forces.
If the Assad regime is responsible for this attack—as certainly seems plausible—what could airstrikes be expected to accomplish? And why should the “humanitarian” response to this horrific event be military intervention? Although the American public is, with good reason, overwhelmingly opposed to military involvement in Syria’s chaotic civil war, much of the pundit and political classes have been calling for a US attack on Syrian military targets. Their rationale is not only that Assad must be punished for committing an atrocity but that US “credibility” is at stake—that, having declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line,” Obama will not be taken seriously if he doesn’t order military action. But any credibility Washington had in the region was lost long ago—if not in its war against Iraq based on false WMD allegations, then certainly in the chaos that resulted from the Libyan intervention. And Washington’s recent assent to the bloody coup in Egypt raises serious questions. Why does the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Cairo, and the killing of some 1,000 unarmed protesters, elicit little US response, while an attack killing perhaps the same number of civilians outside Damascus brings missile strikes? Secretary of State John Kerry is certainly right in declaring the use of chemical weapons a “moral obscenity.” But if that’s the case, then the evidence that Washington actively colluded in Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s—according to declassified CIA documents and former officials, as recently detailed in Foreign Policy—indicates that his condemnation should hit closer to home.
There can be no question that a US military attack on Syria without UN Security Council approval would be a violation of international law. President Obama admitted as much several days after the chemical weapons attack. Any attempt to get around the predicted Russian and Chinese veto by seeking NATO approval would be just as illegitimate. And the UN’s “responsibility to protect” clause, which allows humanitarian intervention to override state sovereignty in the case of systematic human rights violations, requires Security Council approval as well. The Obama administration also has an obligation to justify its actions to the American people and to seek congressional authorization.
But the arguments against an attack on Syria are more than legalistic. There are both practical and, yes, humanitarian reasons to be opposed to military action. On the practical level, there is little chance that limited airstrikes will have much deterrent effect on a ruthless regime that sees itself as engaged in an existential struggle for survival. The initial airstrikes could thus easily suck Washington into what Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges has called “a playground for the merchants of death.” It would make the United States a direct participant in what has become a regional sectarian conflict, further destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, all of which are now parties to the Syrian maelstrom. It would draw Washington closer to, and strengthen, a chaotic rebel front now dominated by jihadi extremists closely connected to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it would increase the chances of direct conflict between the United States and Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, all of whom are determined to prevent the fall of Assad.
On the humanitarian level, there is a strong chance that US airstrikes, no matter how “surgical,” will kill innocent civilians. Many of the Assad regime’s missile and artillery batteries are in heavily populated districts, and some have formidable air defenses, which could lead to many grievous mistakes (in the 1999 Kosovo war, some 500 civilians were killed by a NATO bombing campaign that was intended to save lives). American airstrikes could worsen what is already a disastrous refugee crisis. In fact, one of the most constructive things America could do to relieve the suffering of Syrians would be to vastly increase aid to the 1.9 million refugees who have flooded across the country’s borders.
Instead of bombing Syria, the United States should join Russia in its effort to renew the Geneva negotiations. Moscow and Washington are in conflict over Syria, but they share an interest in not widening the war and strengthening jihadi extremists. It’s long past time for the two powers to concede that neither Assad nor the rebels are going to be defeated anytime soon. A peace agreement isn’t feasible now, but if the United States and Russia work together, they could use their combined influence to choke off the flow of arms from the outside and contain the conflict as they work toward a cease-fire. If they don’t, Syria’s disintegration will spread throughout the region.