President Barack Obama still plans to ask Congress for authorization to engage in military action against Syria if the Russian diplomatic initiative to place the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control fails.
As repressive as the Syrian regime is and as horrific as its apparent use of chemical weapons against its own people may be, authorizing U.S. air strikes would be a bad idea for the following reasons:
1) A U.S. military attack would be illegal.
According to the United Nations Charter, Article 2(4) makes it illegal for any country to use force (or threaten to use force) against another country, and Article 2(7) prohibits intervention in an internal or domestic dispute in another country. The only legal use of military force is self-defense if one’s country is under direct attack (Article 51), or in the event that the UN Security Council determines all peaceful means have been exhausted and specifically authorizes such use of force (Article 42). Having one country violate international law to punish another country for violating international law makes little sense. Furthermore, given that the UN Charter is an international treaty that has been signed and ratified by the United States, it is to be treated as supreme law, according to Article VI of the Constitution. Attacking Syria would therefore also be illegal under U.S. law, even if authorized by Congress.
2) There is little strategic rationale.
Syria’s chemical weapons’ stockpiles would release large amounts of toxic gasses into the air, which could kill many thousands of people. Since there is no realistic way of eliminating their delivery systems either, there appears to be little strategic rationale. Furthermore, the threat of a U.S. attack in the event that the Syrian regime would use chemical weapons – a possibility first put forward by Obama more than a year ago – failed to deter last month’s attacks. Even if subjected to missile strikes in the coming weeks, there is little question that the regime would be willing to use them again and on a more massive scale, if its survival were threatened. Indeed, punitive air strikes rarely have worked, often leading to more serious acts of retaliation.
3) Military intervention likely would lead to more death and destruction.
History is replete with examples of supposedly “limited” military actions that escalated dramatically. In addition, empirical studies have demonstrated repeatedly that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term, and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious than if there were no intervention. In addition, such military intervention often triggers a “gloves off” mentality that severely increases the violence on both sides, with the government believing they no longer had anything to lose and the rebels less prone to negotiate or compromise.
4) The United States has little credibility regarding chemical weapons.
In 2002, the leading administration and congressional backers for military action – John Kerry, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, among others – categorically insisted that the Iraqi regime still had large and dangerous stockpiles of chemical weapons. Though their current claims about the Syrian regime are probably true, the false statements they and other top U.S. officials made about Iraq have severely weakened U.S. credibility in terms of alleged threats from chemical weapons. In addition, the United States has sought repeatedly to undermine multilateral approaches to the control of chemical weapons and weaken its enforcement agencies, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And, in 2007, the United States blocked a Syrian effort at the United Nations to impose a region wide ban on chemical weapons and other non-conventional weapons because it would have required U.S. allies Israel and Egypt to also rid themselves of such weapons.
5) A military attack likely would strengthen the Syrian regime.
Whatever strategic losses the Syrian regime may suffer, a U.S. attack could be more than made up by political gains. Any time a country is attacked from the outside, there is a rallying-around-the-flag effect. For decades, President Bashar Assad and his father have successfully manipulated the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism into support for their rule. U.S. support for the 46 years of Israeli occupation of the southwestern part of their country, along with U.S. attacks on Syrian forces in Lebanon during the 1980s and threats of “regime change” during the Bush era, have led to enormous resentment–even by opponents of the regime. Despite its horrific repression, the regime has convinced millions of Syrians that it is the last noble bastion of secular Arab nationalism resisting both Islamist extremism and Western imperialism. A U.S. attack would play right into that narrative.
6) The United States is isolated in the international community.
The Obama administration has very little support internationally for a unilateral strike. Despite the Syrian regime having very few remaining defenders in the international community, it appears that only France – the former colonial power – is seriously considering directly supporting U.S. military action. Unlike the 1999 bombing of Serbia, which had the support of most NATO countries, and the 2011 bombing of Libya, which had the support of most of the Arab League, neither of these organizations supports a U.S. bombing of Syria. Having the United States once again engaged in a war (in violation of international legal norms) against a much smaller country on the far side of the world can only strengthen anti-American sentiments and result in the further decline in the credibility and influence of the United States.