The Syrian Chemical Attack: Washington Must Not Make a Bad Situation Worse
Editor's Note: TNI published this piece just as U.S. forces began attacks on the Assad regime.
In response to the heinous chemical attack against civilians in Syria’s Idlib province on Monday, Nikki Haley, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, addressed an emergency Security Council (UNSC) session on Wednesday. In unusually strong language, the ambassador declared that when the UN consistently fails in its duty, “there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.” Before taking military action against a sovereign state with whom the United States is not at war, however, Congress must step forward and fulfill its obligations.
There is currently no existing legal justification for attacking Syria, no matter how gruesome its behavior. Before the president orders any military strikes, Congress is obligated to debate the matter.
If it deems there is sufficient justification, then Congress can pass a new authorization for the use of military force. Without a new AUMF, the United States cannot attack. Doing so would violate the constitution. Without a UNSC resolution, an attack on a sovereign state would be a violation of international law.
Prior to the UNSC emergency meeting, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova categorically rejected a draft resolution threatening military action against Syria. When the resolution comes up for a vote, both Russia and China may veto the measure, like they did in February. President Trump, however, appears determined to respond regardless.
Were U.S. national security at stake, that would not matter nearly as much. But in Syria, America was not attacked—innocent Syrians were targeted.
At a Rose Garden press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, President Trump reminded one reporter that he doesn’t like to say publicly when he would or wouldn’t launch a military attack. But he did say that the attack “crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies—babies, little babies—with a chemical gas that is so lethal . . . that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
If there is to be any military action, it must be legal, and it must be supported by the American people. Perhaps more so than at any time since 9/11, Congress must fulfill its constitutional obligations and do its job.
The chemical attack was a barbaric act and should repulse any civilized person. But for the United States to respond before an investigation has conclusively proven who did it, we risk punishing the wrong parties.
On a more practical matter, Russia and Iran are allies of Syria and have military personnel on the ground there. If U.S. action were to kill or wound their personnel, it would risk turning a tragic civil war into a major regional battle that doesn’t enhance American security.
As important, even aside from the legal matters, launching strikes to punish Assad would not solve the conflicts driving this war. It would almost certainly increase the suffering of the people. Recall the violent aftermath in Libya when Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed? That civil war rages to this day.
Regardless of who is ultimately identified as the guilty party, the difficult fact remains that Syria’s civil war does not pit clearly defined “good guys” versus “bad guys.” There is substantial evidence indicating many of the so-called ”moderate” rebel groups that market themselves as “freedom fighters” have been just as violent and often anti-American as the Al Qaeda groups or the Assad regime itself. Getting rid of Assad will not create conditions for political reconciliation among groups that have fought each other for centuries—it will succeed only in creating a new vacuum for extremists to fill.
A policy of regime change—no matter how barbaric the leader—has proven time after time to be a disaster. Consider the results of the regime changes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt. In each case, the situation got significantly worse after the government was taken down.
Regime change in Syria would yield the same result, making this horrific situation even worse. The country has already been devastated by the civil war. If Assad were forcibly removed, the violence would increase considerably as scores of competing factions that currently work together would turn on each other in a drive for power.
The most powerful of the opposition groups in Syria today are violent, radical Islamic organizations like Al Qaeda and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Short of a major occupation and yet another doomed-to-fail nation-building effort in the Middle East, military action to remove Assad would succeed only in clearing the way for one of these brutal groups to ascend to power. Such an outcome must be avoided at all costs as it would only harm American national security.
Washington must recognize that, first and foremost, this civil war is a political matter and cannot be externally resolved by the use of U.S. military power.
Firing more cruise missiles at Assad would not end the civil war. It would not end the suffering of innocent civilians. And it would not bring peace to Syria.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments.