Today Secretary of State John Kerry presented documents in support of his case that the Syrian regime ordered a chemical weapons attack that killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children. Days earlier Kerry had promised “consequences” if the US judged that the “red line” of chemical weapons use had been crossed. The nature of those “consequences” is not certain, but all signs point to a US missile or other aerial strike, “a bloody nose operation,” as MERIP editor Bassam Haddad puts it. The Obama administration promises a “limited, narrow act,” not an “open-ended commitment.” We asked a few veteran observers to comment on this turn of events.
The chemical weapons attack in Syria and the debates in the Security Council recall previous episodes when Washington sought backing for war. Who can forget the presentation by Colin Powell to the Council on February 6, 2003, a presentation riddled with falsehoods? Powell later said that he felt “regret.” There was also the “dodgy dossier” concocted by Downing Street to prove that war was justified. Hans Blix, leader of the UN inspection team in Iraq at that time, has now commented on the rush to war in Syria. Recalling how the US and Britain preempted the UN inspection process in Iraq, he warns that, this time, we cannot rely on the self-interested pronouncements of powerful states and that inspectors must be allowed to do their job. Further, he says, the US is not the world’s policeman. A novel idea!
The Syria situation under international law is clear. The UN Charter only allows one state to undertake military action against another state in two cases: in self-defense against an imminent attack and in response to a Security Council resolution. Neither will apply in this case, because any resolution would be vetoed by Russia and China. So Washington is reaching for other justifications and looking backward at past interventions for recycled rationales. One is the concept of “moral” policy and the related “just war” idea, promoted by Tony Blair in his famous speech in Chicago in defense of the Kosovo NATO bombings in 1999. This dangerous approach enables powerful countries to attack others on the basis of supposedly ethical judgments, judgments which we know are always rooted in self-interest. The governments play on public fears and humanitarian sentiments. Dodgy dossiers and heart-rending speeches are an essential part of this strategy. Another approach is the still shakier idea that military action is “illegal but legitimate,” proposed after Kosovo by a panel of jurists, but widely regarded as dangerously vague and subjective. Legal systems must be broadly legitimate, to be sure, but particular applications cannot set aside law in favor of legitimacy alone, lest such a system become the plaything of propagandists and the powerful.
Another rationale on Syria, currently faddish, is the idea of the “responsibility to protect.” According to this doctrine, if states fail to protect their citizens, “the international community” should act. But here, too, the ground is very shaky. R2P, as spelled out in 2005, is vague and in its agreed form it certainly does not justify action outside UN authorization. Subjective judgments are also a dangerous part of the doctrine.
So Washington is in a pickle, which is worsened by the Arab League refusal to give regional endorsement for military action. In the wake of the Washington-backed military coup in Egypt, few governments in the region want to be seen as supporting yet another US intervention. So Washington and its friends change the subject and talk about Security Council “paralysis” as a way to justify their aggressive acts. This pretends that the veto (or threat of its use) is something that only the bad guys make use of. In fact, of course, it is a move used nearly every day and perhaps used even more prolifically by Washington than the other four. So Washington is now mumbling about “norms” being violated and promising “limited” attacks. But an air war is still a war and a short war is still a war also. More bombing will not solve Syria’s problems and it seems a bizarre way to “punish” the dictator Bashar al-Asad or to set in motion a new and more responsible government. It will only prolong the killing and promote the victory of the Islamic fundamentalist “rebels.” Legality will not be served.
Any talk about international law, chemical weapons and morality must be connected to the broader issues in the Syria conflict and the proxy war that is being fought so fiercely and cynically, to the ruin of the country. What is the “moral” case for Western military support for Islamic fundamentalist fighters — the key to the “rebel” forces challenging the dictator? Would a victory for al-Qaeda in Syria be an ethical advance? Or just desserts for the Asad dynasty? MERIP readers know what a diverse country Syria is and how threatened most of the population feel by the Islamic rebels. Clearly, the military strikes are not about “punishment” or “protecting” anyone, but rather about tilting the balance of a devastating conflict in favor of the Western-backed forces. And securing hegemony in the oil-rich region. Neither the dictatorship nor the armed rebel army represent “legality” in the sense we would want to support. The only path toward legality — a ceasefire and negotiated settlement in Geneva, as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi proposes — has been foreclosed by the West. Instead of bombs, the “international community” should reach out to the Syrian democratic and non-violent opposition in search of peace.
The tragedy playing out on Syrian soil that has led to the very real possibility of American strikes is bad enough. But what makes the debate over whether to intervene even worse is that the war’s trajectory has been perversely predictable, as Peter Harling and I argued in April. From August 2011, when Bashar al-Asad sent tanks to crush the rebellion in Hama, it was clear that violence would be the regime’s solution: a slow, gradual escalation to both desensitize onlookers and test outside powers’ (lack of) appetite for intervention. Under such circumstances, and with a helping hand from the regime, the radicalization of the rebels and influx of foreign fighters were not hard to foresee. So here we are. Two and a half years since the uprising started and considering using force for the first time.
Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. There were good reasons for not intervening earlier — and indeed there are now. But the failure of foreign policy decision makers to acknowledge that the path ahead has long been clear is something to lament. Now they are stuck in a situation where intervention appears ever more pressing, yet is ever riskier.
Although the opposition in exile has been calling for intervention for months, and although many Syrians bemoan the lack of American and Western solidarity, there is a deep unease among Syrians about strikes. Western involvement in the Middle East, where priorities are driven more by Israel and other interests than by human rights, is deeply unsettling to many.
At root, the problem is that both Syrians and foreign officials are still struggling to answer how it would have been possible to help Syrians achieve the change they wanted without it coming to this.
The war machine seems to have hit a bump in the road and lost its most trusty sidecar. Considerable disquiet within his own party about bombing Syria forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to allow parliamentary debate on the matter, only to be handed a humiliating defeat, even after promising to postpone a final vote on military action. Cameron’s woes were a sad reminder that, in matters of war, the closest thing the United States has to an effective democratic opposition is the legislature of a foreign country.
As part of a last-ditch maneuver to mollify skeptics, Downing Street had issued a two-page position paper asserting a right to wage war without the authorization of the UN Security Council by reference to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, permitting “exceptional measures to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.” The position paper — which reiterates legal arguments used during the Yugoslavia and Iraq episodes in the 1990s — did not attempt to demonstrate how military action prompted by the use of a specific type of weapon would prevent the subsequent use of that weapon, let alone ameliorate the overall humanitarian situation. Anyway, there may have been little point in explicating the legal rationale further, since scholars are nearly unanimous in rejecting humanitarian intervention as a legal basis for war (and the position paper did not mention the “Responsibility to Protect” line of argumentation that some push as a framework for humanitarian war). Even the United States has never supported it.
But making some kind of argument, however thin, was necessary because the British public has at least some concern for international legality in matters of war and peace, especially after the Iraq debacle. The British government went so far as to stage a commission of inquiry into its role in the Iraq war that, among other things, forced Tony Blair to confront his critics (and hecklers). For its part, the US failed to reexamine the 2003 rush to war in any credible way. It even went so far as to wage a campaign in 2010 to water down the International Criminal Court’s ability to prosecute the crime of aggression.
On our side of the Atlantic, the issue, of course, has been less about whether attacking Syria would flout international law but whether the legislature has been given a chance to sign off. Among members of Congress, a letter asking President Barack Obama for such consultation has gathered over 140 signatures so far (for his part, House Speaker John Boehner sent a polite list of questions to the White House). This letter explicitly rejects the administration’s argument during the Libya campaign that punitive air wars do not require Congressional authorization because they do not rise to the level of “hostilities” for the purposes of the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
These protestations — consistent with the minimal public support for yet another war — have never mattered much. US presidents have elected numerous times not to consult Congress before unleashing the country’s military, especially when ground forces were not to be involved. But Cameron’s defeat has precipitated perhaps the greatest rift in Anglo-American collaboration toward the Middle East since the 1956 Suez crisis and could do more to dampen the enthusiasm for war than any likely move by the US political class.
In May, I met with a friend, a Palestinian from Syria who left for Amman after his home in the Yarmouk refugee camp was flattened by government bombs. A leftist and activist, he began talking about events in Syria since 2011.
He said: “We discovered that we are people. We have rights and we can achieve them. This is the beginning of the movement. It is happening. I relearned Gramsci from the youth of the Yarmouk alleys, not because Gramsci is right, but because the young people developed their struggle out of local society and their own resistance to the system. We witnessed the faithful and faithless together. But the elite of the dissident political movements held back from embracing this youth movement. I heard them say, ‘Don’t the people know how awful the regime is? Why did they revolt against it?’ It was as if they were blaming the people for inciting the regime against them. Of course, some of the leading dissidents were imprisoned for years and are traumatized. But good people, communists and nationalists, took surprisingly conservative positions. ‘Revolution, yes, but not like this.’ They cited various theories and tried to say what was happening on the ground did not fit and thus would not succeed. But nothing stays the same. And they can’t see that in the intellectual fantasy they have created.”
“What I see is that there is now nothing shared between these generations, not even a shared language or means of communication. The people on the ground are doing things, while the old ideologues shout in the other direction. This is why I say I relearned Gramsci from the youth in the streets of Syria. And the youth want leadership and want to learn. There are good leaders there, and there has been an important moral element. We were upset with the Islamists because this is not our way, not our history. Islam for us is a tradition, part of who we are, but not the only thing we are.”
“But this moral element is there in our people. One of the army’s intelligence men was injured badly and lying in the Palestine Hospital. When he woke up, they called his wife and told her where he was. She arrived, terrified of what she would find or what they would do. The doctors said, ‘Here’s your husband. Here’s the ambulance. Take him away for more treatment.’ It doesn’t matter who a person is — these doctors and those around them were committed to the moral understanding of life. But this moral understanding is absent in the consciousness of the elite, in those who sit around and talk. And in those who don’t understand the revolution. We are witnessing, instead, a moral sin.”