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.