Obama's Weak Syria Case

The president has yet to offer a compelling and consistent argument for his proposed military action.

President Obama’s case for striking Syria is perplexing and misguided. Here’s hoping that these attributes will become clear during the debate that will occur now that he has delayed acting and sought Congressional consent.

Despite the massive death toll in Syria, which now exceeds one hundred thousand, Obama has been chary (wisely, in my view) of intervening in a complex and increasingly sectarian conflict between a brutal government and an assortment of armed groups animated by discordant visions of that country’s future—or, in the case of the Kurds, a future outside of it. What little Obama has done in support of the Syrian resistance, he has done reluctantly.

Then came the August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus suburb that, according to Secretary of State Kerry, killed 1,429 people, including more than four hundred children. President Obama soon tagged Assad’s government as the perpetrator and began preparations for a fusillade of air and missile strikes by naval vessels on patrol in the eastern Mediterranean.

The lives taken by the August 21 attack amount to less than 1.4 percent of total number of Syrians slaughtered by Assad’s security forces and the proregime thugs, the shabiha. So why did the killing of one-thousand-plus people (horrific no doubt) become unacceptable when over one hundred thousand have perished, and with no military response from the United States for over two years? Is there something about murdering people with chemicals that sets the act apart entirely from doing so with rifles, bombers, helicopter gunships and artillery barrages? If so, what is that difference, why does it necessitate an attack on Syria, and for what strategic purpose? The White House and those who call for an attack on Assad—or something even more substantial—act as if there is a difference but can’t quite articulate what it is.

Washington’s own attitude toward the use of chemical weapons has, by the way, been less than consistent. Some five thousand people perished when Saddam Hussein used these munitions in March 1988 against the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabjah (and elsewhere thereafter) as part of his infamous “Anfal” campaign. The Reagan administration responded by claiming that Iran too had used such weapons at Halabjah, a proposition for which it offered no evidence and for which none has since been found. The imperative guiding American policy then was to back Iraq in its long war with Iran. There was no forthright American condemnation of Saddam or call for sanctions, let alone punitive strikes. The White House even lobbied (successfully) against a condemnatory Congressional resolution.

Obama is hardly obligated to emulate Reagan, but he does need to explain why the August 21 attack warrants the response he has chosen, especially since Assad has not attacked the United States. He has not done this persuasively.

The president has raised the impermissibility of using weapons of mass destruction. But the United States itself has reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in a first strike, though in President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that option was for the first time reserved for preventing a nuclear attack by another state. On occasion, administration officials have said that that Assad could launch another chemical attack if his wings aren’t clipped now. If he did, still more Syrians would be killed. But that would simply underscore the relentlessness of the carnage occurring in Syria. A limited strike (whatever that means) will not end the bloodbath itself, though it may give guilt-ridden leaders in the West solace that they have done something after all.

The president has also stated that it’s essential to ensure that the bans on chemical weapons are respected. Yet the 1925 Geneva Protocol contains no provisions for unilateral enforcement by states, let alone via military force. The same goes for the Chemical Weapons Convention (which Syria has not signed). It calls for “collective measures…in conformity with international law” to address serious breaches. There’s no basis for the United States to don the mantle of self-styled enforcer.

And the legal case for unilateral action is further weakened by the lack of a self-defense rationale under the terms of the UN Charter: Assad has not used chemical (or any other) weapons against the United States. French president Francois Hollande says that “international law must evolve with the times,” but if the evolution occurs because of unilateral moves that lack wider support, then we’re on a slippery slope. One day, the global balance of power may be different and the dominant power may want international law to evolve to suit its purposes and make the same argument. The issue is not whether there should be an evolution in light of new circumstances—of course there should be—but how it takes place: by fiat and unilateral action or (admittedly a slow and difficult process) consensus that confers legitimacy.