Originally published in The Nation.
The threat of a reckless, dangerous, and illegal US or US-led assault on Syria is looking closer than ever.
The US government has been divided over the Syria crisis since it began. Some, especially in the Pentagon and some of the intelligence agencies, said direct military intervention would be dangerous and would accomplish nothing. Others, especially in Congress and some in the State Department, have demanded military attacks, even regime change, against the Syrian leadership, even before anyone made allegations of chemical weapons. The Obama administration has been divided too, with President Obama seemingly opposed to any US escalation. The American people are not divided—60% are against intervening in Syria’s civil war even if chemical weapons were involved.
But the situation is changing rapidly, and the Obama administration appears to be moving closer to direct military intervention. That would make the dire situation in Syria inestimably worse.
The attack that killed so many civilians, including many children, last Wednesday may well have been from a chemical weapon. Doctors Without Borders, in touch with local hospitals they support, said that while the symptoms “strongly indicate” that thousands of patients were exposed to a neurotoxic agent, they “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.” The United Nations chemical weapons inspection team already in Syria to investigate earlier claims was granted permission by the government to visit the new site today; they have not yet reported any findings.
No one knows yet what actually happened, other than a horrific attack on civilians, many of whom died. No one has yet made public any evidence of what killed them, or who may responsible. All attacks on civilians are war crimes—regardless of whether they are carried out by the Syrian army, rebel militias, or US cruise missiles.
And yet the calls, the demands, the assumptions of a looming US attack on Syria are rising. NBC News reported that the US had “very little doubt” that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous “senior defense official” who said the military strikes being considered “would be conducted from ships in the Eastern Mediterranean using long-range missiles, without using manned aircraft. ‘You do not need basing. You do not need over-flight. You don’t need to worry about defenses.”
Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that a chemical attack was “undeniable,” we still don’t know for sure that it was a chemical weapon, and we certainly don’t know who did it. Kerry spoke this afternoon, calling the attack a “moral obscenity.” If it was a chemical attack, as appears likely, it certainly is just that. So far in this war, over 100,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes—aren’t all of those moral obscenities?
Kerry seems to believe that this moral obscenity requires military action in response. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain said so earlier. But he’s wrong. It’s likely that it was a chemical agent of some sort that led to mass sickness and many deaths in the Damascus suburb. And maybe it was the Syrian regime that was responsible for it. The questions that would then need to be asked, the questions “even if,” have to start with “so what should we do?”
Does anyone really believe that a military strike on an alleged chemical weapons factory would help the Syrian people, would save any lives, would help bring an end to this horrific civil war? What’s the best we could hope for, that a cruise missile strike would actually succeed, would accurately find its target, and explode a warehouse full of chemical agents into airborne clouds of death?
Illegal Even If
The US government is creating a false dichotomy—it’s either a military strike, or we let them get away with it. No one is talking about any other kind of international accountability, nothing like the International Criminal Court. Last month, the White House “law group” noted that arming the rebels might violate international law. Do they think a cruise missile strike is okay? We heard President Obama a couple of days ago refer to international law. He said “if the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it … and those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
But what we’re hearing now is that the model under consideration for a US military strike on Syria would be that of Kosovo. Remember that one, back in 1999, at the end of the Bosnia war? That time, knowing it was impossible to get Security Council agreement for an air war against Serbia over the disputed enclave of Kosovo, the US and its allies simply announced that they would get their international permission slip somewhere else. That would be the NATO high command. What a surprise, the NATO generals agreed with their respective presidents and prime ministers, and said sure, we think it’s a great idea. The problem is, the UN Charter is very clear on what constitutes a legal use of military force—and permission from NATO isn’t on that very short list. If the Security Council does not say yes, and there is no legal claim of immediate self-defense (which even the US isn’t claiming regarding Syria), any use or threat of use of military force is illegal. Period. Full stop. Claiming that NATO or someone else said it was okay isn’t part of international law—the air war was illegal in Kosovo, and it would be illegal in Syria.
But let’s go back a minute. Let’s remember that we don’t know for sure that it was a chemical weapon. We don’t know for sure that it was a weapon at all. Crucially, let’s remember we don’t have any evidence of who might have used such a weapon. So then what do we ask? Maybe we start with the age old question, cui bono? Who benefits?
It’s easier to say who loses—the Syrian people, most importantly the victims and their families. Whole communities are being decimated. (We shouldn’t forget that Americans will pay a price too—a new war will result in more military spending. That will create pressure on Congress to cut domestic spending even further, cutting vital social programs even more.)
But who benefits is a little more complicated.
It’s certainly not impossible that the Syrian regime, known to have had a chemical weapons arsenal, used such a weapon. If so, why? Despite remaining under pressure from sanctions and facing increasing international isolation, Damascus has been seeing some success on the battlefield. It’s certainly possible a mid-level Syrian officer, worried about some past defeat and desperately afraid of being held accountable for it, might have chosen to use such a weapon to gain a gruesome battlefield victory despite the increase in the threat of direct military intervention. But it is very unlikely the regime’s leadership would have made such a choice. Not because they “wouldn’t kill their own people,” they’ve been doing just that. But because they stood to lose far more than any potential gain. It’s not impossible. But as brutal as this regime is, it isn’t crazy. It’s unlikely.
Then there’s the other side, the diverse opposition whose strongest fighters are those claiming allegiance to al Qaeda and similar extremist organizations. Those who benefit from this attack, are those eager for greater US and western military intervention against the Assad regime in Damascus. Further, al Qaeda and its offshoots have always been eager to get the US military—troops, warplanes, ships, bases, whatever—into their territory. It makes it so much easier to attack them there. Politically it remains what US counter-intelligence agents long ago called a “recruitment tool” for al Qaeda. They loved the Iraq war for that reason. They would love the Syrian war all the more if US targets were brought in. All the debate about “red lines,” the domestic and international political pressure to “do something,” the threats to the UN inspectors on the ground—who inside Syria do we think is cheering that on?
(And as for the opposition’s capacity and/or willingness to use such weapons…we should also remember that the opposition includes some defectors. Who knows what skills and weapons access they brought with them? And do we really doubt that al Qaeda wanna-be extremists, many of them not even Syrians, would hesitate to kill civilians in a suburb of Damascus?)
UN Inspectors Pulled Out?
The most dangerous signal of US intentions may be the call for the United Nations weapons inspectors to withdraw. To his credit, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rejected the Obama administration’s call, and kept the inspection team in place, to do its work. On the eve of the war in Iraq, 48 hours before US warplanes began their assault on Baghdad, George W. Bush issued an even more direct demand for UN weapons inspectors and humanitarian workers to be withdrawn. Then Secretary-General Kofi Annan pulled his team out, understandably afraid for their lives. But what if those scores of UN staffers had been given the choice to stay? Might the risk of killing dozens, scores of UN international staff, have made the US pause for just a moment before beginning its assault? Maybe those staffers would have changed history. This time around, like before, diplomacy rather than military action is the only way to enable the UN inspectors to continue their work to find the truth.
Let’s be clear. Any US military attack, cruise missiles or anything else, will not be to protect civilians—it will mean taking sides once again in a bloody, complicated civil war. And al Qaeda would be very pleased.
This time, maybe the Obama administration isn’t about to launch cruise missiles against Syria. Maybe there’s still time to prevent it. Right now, those risking their lives on the ground to help the Syrian people are the UN inspectors. If the US is really concerned about their safety, and recognizes the legitimacy of UN inspectors, the Obama administration should immediately engage with the UN leadership and with the Syrian, Russian and other relevant governments to insure their safety while they continue their crucial efforts. Cruise missiles will make that work impossible. What’s needed now is tough diplomacy, not politically-motivated military strikes that will make a horrific war even worse.
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