Paul Pillar

Warped Motives on Syria

With a U.S. military attack on Syria now being discussed in the media as a question of “when” rather than “if,” let us devote more honest thought to the “why.” I am not referring to any official rationale but instead to the actual political and emotional dynamics in the United States that have gotten us to this point. Even if, as it appears, this train has left the station and has gotten beyond the point of being able to apply well-reasoned assessment of likely consequences to well-founded objectives, maybe by being above-board now about what is propelling the train we will be better able to make sense of what happened once we survey whatever mess is left by our actions and people have moved on to the stage of recriminations, second-guessing, and lessons learned.

A major part of what is happening is that the heartstrings of non-Syrians, including Americans, are being tugged by the suffering of Syrians caught in Syria's civil war. When what appears to be an especially grisly episode occurs in this war, the heartstrings are yanked even harder. And so there is a constituency and domestic political market for “doing something” about what's going on in Syria. But the satisfaction of that constituency's yearnings is unaccompanied, at least so far, by an explanation and analysis of how something like an attack by U.S. air power would alleviate the Syrians' woes—bearing in mind that any such analysis would have to take full account of responses by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, responses of outsiders, and effects on the overall tempo and trajectory of the civil war. We should admit to ourselves that the objective is more about lessening the tension on those heartstrings and inducing a warm feeling in the tummies in the same torsos, than it is about actually improving the condition of suffering Syrians. That objective is not nearly as noble as its surface manifestation makes it appear.

Supposedly the one event that most got us to where we are today regarding policy on Syria was a reported use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons. But the basic question of why this particular battlefield development and choice of a weapon should drive U.S. policy toward somebody else's civil war—even to the point of forcefully intervening in that war—remains unanswered, just as it was unanswered the first time the regime reportedly used such a weapon and President Obama declared that any such use by Assad's regime would be a “game changer.” Why should this one reported incident be given so much more status than the non-chemical warfare, by both sides in the civil war, that has killed a hundred times more people?

What we are seeing here is partly an effect of a popular fascination with all types of unconventional weapons, because they are more intriguing than plain old bombs and bullets and they provide better material for spell-binding scare stories. It is this fascination that underlies the persistent tendency to refer to chemical agents as “weapons of mass destruction” on a par with nuclear or biological weapons, even though they aren't that.

There is a more serious concern about chemical weapons that is expressed by what is generally known as the arms control community. That community is not usually known for belligerence, but in this case at least parts of it believe forceful action in Syria is appropriate for the purpose of deterring future use of chemical weapons. That concern leads to many other important unanswered questions. In particular: even if protecting a norm of non-use of CW is a worthwhile goal, since when did that goal become such an overriding priority, among all the other much greater U.S. interests at stake especially in the Middle East, that it would be given determinative weight to the point of impelling intervention in somebody else's civil war?

The norm about non-use of CW that the arms control aficionados want to protect has not been as sturdy as some would suggest. There has been repeated use of chemical weapons since the World War I experience that led to international conventions on the subject—by Egypt in Yemen, probably by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and most notably by Iraq inside Iraq. That last instance was noteworthy partly because the United States turned a blind eye toward this use of CW at a time when it was tilting toward Iraq and against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.  Especially given that well-known precedent, an attack on Syria will be seen less as a deterrence-upholding blow in favor of a non-use norm than as a use of the CW issue as an excuse to bash a regime the United States doesn't happen to like.

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