Military strike would be illegal – UN Charter allows military force only if immediate self-defense (Art 51), not applicable, the U.S. not attacked by Syria; or if Security Council agrees (Chapter VII, Art 42) – not going to happen – Russian veto, probably Chinese, maybe even Britain. Might not even get 9 positive votes. “Kosovo precedent” still illegal – can’t use NATO, “coalition of willing,” etc to substitute for Security Council permission.
Military strike would be immoral – Pentagon officials have confirmed what logic tells us all: every use of military force threatens civilian lives, specifically that cruise missiles not completely accurate. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in this civil war so far. U.S. cruise missile strikes won’t protect any Syrian civilians from further threat. Low-ranking conscript troops and civilians almost certain to be injured or killed by cruise missile strikes. Reports out of Syria indicate military offices and troops being moved into populated areas – not a surprise given the nature of the Syrian regime. But the knowledge makes those contemplating military force even more culpable for “collateral” damage.
Military strike would be dangerous – threatens further destabilization in the region. Could result in greater anti-American sentiment and potentially individual or terrorist attacks. Could mean retaliation from Syria and/or its allies. Could exacerbate all five wars currently being fought in Syria – civil war, sectarian (Sunni-Shi’a) war, regional (Saudi-Iran) power war, global U.S-Russia war, U.S./Israel-Iran war over nuclear policy.
Potential consequences – The Day After
What if Syria retaliates –
Syria’s neighborhood is a “target-rich” environment
Direct attack on a U.S. warship off Syrian coast, missile attack on U.S. troops in region, attack (directly or by proxies) on U.S. bases in neighboring countries (CentCom HQ in Qatar, drone base in Saudi, for instance?)
Attack on Israel
Attack on U.S. or Israeli civilian or military plane or other facilities
If Iran joins Syria in retaliation –
All of the above, plus the oil weapon
Iran could shut the crowded, already-militarized and already-tense Strait of Hormuz
Iran could sink a tanker in the Strait, shutting it for weeks or longer; huge oil crisis
All of that possible before breakfast.
US response to retaliation – what would U.S. do?
Announce we had only planned a small-scale, one-off military strike, no boots on the ground, no regime change, no escalation…. And therefore we will not respond? Doubtful.
Threat then of escalation, boots on the ground (to protect U.S. interests inside Syria, perhaps inside Israel, more troops to Saudi or Qatar, Jordan or Turkey….)
So What Should the U.S. Do Instead?
- First thing, stop false dichotomy of it’s either military force or nothing. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, it is indeed what Secretary Kerry called a “moral obscenity.” Whoever used such a weapon should be held accountable. So what do we do about it?
- Do no harm. Don’t kill more people in the name of enforcing an international norm.
- Recognize that the use of chemical weapons by anyone is a war crime, and that international law requires international enforcement. No one country, not even the most powerful, has the right to act as unilateral cop. Move to support international jurisdiction and enforcement, including calling for a second UN investigation to follow-up the current weapons inspection team, this one to determine who was responsible for the attack.
- Convene meeting of States Parties to Chemical Weapons Convention – all 189 signatories have obligation to respond to violations, they should meet and decide collectively on what to do, as called for in the terms of the treaty. (U.S. a member, Syria is not.)
- Recommend that whoever is found responsible be brought to justice in The Hague at the International Criminal Court, understanding that timing of such indictments might require adjustment to take into account ceasefire negotiations in Syria.
- President Obama can distinguish himself powerfully from his unilateralist predecessor by announcing an immediate campaign not only to get the Senate to ratify the International Criminal Court, but to strengthen the Court and provide it with serious global enforcement capacity.
- Send international human rights monitors in huge numbers to remain on the ground (understanding the risk they take) and provide objective information on potential war crimes
- Move urgently towards a ceasefire and arms embargo in Syria. Russia must stop, and must push Iran to stop arming and funding the Syrian regime. The U.S. must stop, and must push Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and others to stop arming and funding the opposition, including the extremist elements. That won’t be easy – for Washington it may require telling the Saudis and Qataris that if they don’t stop, we will cancel all existing weapons contracts with those countries. (Propose that the Pentagon deal with arms producers the way the Dept of Agriculture deals with farmers – pay them NOT to produce weapons. Use the money to retool their factories to produce solar panels instead of Tomahawk missiles, and the workers stay on the job….)
- Stand against further escalation of the Syrian civil war by voting NO on any authorization for U.S. military strikes.
Director, New Internationalism Project
Institute for Policy Studies
1112 16th Street NW #600
Washington DC 20036