Informed opinion agrees that the response to the presumed Assad regime’s responsibility for the use on August 21st of chemical weapons in Ghuta, a neighborhood in the eastern surrounding suburbs of Damascus, is intended to be punitive. This is a way of signaling that it is a punishment for the use of chemical weapons that does not have the ambition of altering the course of the internal struggle for power in Syria or seeking to decapitate Bashar el-Assad. Of course, if it achieved some larger goal unexpectedly this would likely be welcomed, although not necessarily, by such convergent centers of concern on Syrian policy as Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv.
Why not necessarily? Because there is a growing belief in influential Western circles, highlighted in a cynical article by Edward Luttwak published a few days ago in the NY Times, [“In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” Aug. 24, 2013] that it is better for the United States and Israel if the civil war goes on and on, and there are no winners. Accorded to this warped reasoning, if Assad wins, it would produce significant regional gains for Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; if the Syrian Free Army, and its Nusra Front and Al Qaeda allies win, it is feared that it would give violent extremist forces a base of operations that would likely work strongly against Western interests. Only Turkey, the frontline opponent of the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, the regional champion of Sunni sectarianism, stand to gain by resolving the conflict in favor of the Sunni-led opposition forces as that would both contribute, as Ankara and Riyadh see it, to greater regional stability, augment their preferred sectarian alignment, and inflict a major setback on Iran and Russia.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are split on whether it matters that upon the fall of Assad, a regime would be defeated that has repeatedly committed crimes against humanity in waging a war against its own people. Their contradictory responses to the el-Sisi coup and massacres in Egypt are illuminating on this score: Turkey adhered to principle despite a sacrifice of its short-term material and political interests in the Middle East, while Saudi Arabia has rushed in to provide Cairo with massive economic assistance and a show of strong diplomatic support for a military takeover that is crushing the leading Muslim political organization in the country.
Another way of thinking about the grand strategy of the United States in the Middle East after the dust from the Arab Spring began to settle in the region is suggested by the noted Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery [“Poor Obama,” August 31, 2013]: the U.S. Government at work frantically behind the scenes to restore the function of governance to military dictators, with Egypt the new poster child. Avnery attributes these Machiavellian machinations to CIA masterminds swimming in dark waters, entrapping Obama by overriding his strong rhetorical support for democracy in the Arab world, articulated in his Cairo speech back in 2009.
The rationale for an American-led attack on Syria is mostly expressed as follows:
–America’s credibility is at stake after Obama ‘red line’ was crossed by launching a large-scale lethal chemical weapons attack; doing nothing in response would undermine U.S. global leadership;
–America’s credibility makes indispensable and irreplaceable contributions to world order, and should not jeopardized by continued passivity in relation to the criminal conduct of the Assad regime; inaction has been tried for the past two years and failed miserably [not clearly tried—Hilary Clinton was avowed early supporter of rebel cause, including arms supplies; recent reports indicate American led ‘special forces operations’ being conducted to bolster anti-Assad struggle];
–a punitive strike will deter future uses of chemical weapons by Syria and others, teaching Assad and other leaders that serious adverse consequences follow upon a failure to heed warnings posted by an American president in the form of ‘red lines;’
–even if the attack will not shift the balance in Syria back to the insurgent forces it will restore their political will to persist in the struggle for an eventual political victory over Assad and operate to offset their recently weakened position;
–it is possible that the attack will unexpectedly enhance prospects for a diplomatic compromise, allowing a reconvening of the U.S.-Russia chaired Geneva diplomatic conference, which is the preferred forum for promoting transition to a post-Assad Syria.
Why is this rationale insufficient?
–it does not take account of the fact that a punitive attack of the kind evidently being planned by Washington lacks any foundation in international law as it is neither undertaken in self-defense, nor after authorization by the UN Security Council, nor in a manner that can be justified as humanitarian intervention (in fact, innocent Syrian civilians are almost certain to loom large among the casualties);
–it presupposes that the U.S. Government rightfully exercises police powers on the global stage, and by unilateral (or ‘coalition of the willing’) decision, can give legitimacy to another unlawful undertaking; it may be that the United States remains the dominant hard power political actor in the region and world, but its war making since Vietnam is inconsistent with the global public good, causing massive suffering and widespread devastation; international law and the UNSC are preferable sources of global police power than is reliance on the discretion and leadership of the United States at this stage of world history even if this results in occasional paralysis as evidenced by the UN’s failure to produce a consensus on how to end the war in Syria;
–U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama has similarities to that of George W. Bush in relation to international law, despite differences in rhetoric and style: Obama evades the constraints of international law by the practice of ‘reverential interpretations,’ while Bush defied as matter of national self-assertion and the meta-norms of grand strategy; as a result Obama comes off as a hypocrite while Bush as an outlaw or cowboy; in an ideal form of global law both would be held accountable for their violations of international criminal law;
–the impacts of a punitive strike could generate harmful results: weakening diplomatic prospects; increasing spillover effects on Lebanon, Turkey, elsewhere; complicating relations with Iran and Russia; producing retaliatory responses that widen the combat zone; causing a worldwide rise in anti-Americanism.
There is one conceptual issue that deserves further attention. In the aftermath of the Kosovo NATO War of 1999 there was developed by the Independent International Commission the argument that the military attack was ‘illegal but legitimate.’ The argument made at the time was that the obstacles to a lawful use of force could not be overcome because the use of force was non-defensive and not authorized by the Security Council. The use of force was evaluated as legitimate because of compelling moral reasons (imminent threat of humanitarian catastrophe; regional European consensus; overwhelming Kosovar political consensus—except small Serbian minority) relating to self-determination; Serb record of criminality in Bosnia and Kosovo) coupled with considerations of political feasibility (NATO capabilities and political will; a clear and attainable objective—withdrawal of Serb administrative and political control—that was achieved). Such claims were also subject to harsh criticism as exhibiting double standards (why not Palestine?) and a display of what Noam Chomsky dubbed as ‘military humanism.’
None of these Kosovo elements are present in relation to Syria: it is manifestly unlawful and also illegitimate (the attack will harm innocent Syrians without achieving proportionate political ends benefitting their wellbeing; the principal justifications for using force relate to geopolitical concerns such as ‘credibility,’ ‘deterrence,’ and ‘U.S. leadership.’ [For an intelligent counter-argument contending that an attack on Syria at this time would be ‘illegal but legitimate,’ see Ian Hurd, "Bomb Syria, Even if it is Illegal," NY Times, August 27, 2013; also “Saving Syria, International Law is not the answer,” Aljazeera, August 27, 2013]