US and Syria: The calculus of war

Three questionable justifications and one plausible explanation behind Washington’s plans to strike Syria.

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More than 100,000 people are thought to have died in Syria's conflict [AP]

As the United States gears up to strike Syria, supporters for a military intervention argue that the US cannot stand idly by as the regime of Bashar al-Assad uses the worst weapons against innocent civilians, trampling over the US’ red lines in the process. 

Nonsense, the detractors say. The United States has no mandate to act like a global policeman.

Besides, there are no clear objectives, no vital national interests, no national security imperatives, and no public support for military action.

It’s a lose-lose situation where any military intervention bodes ill for the US, and drags it deeper into a conflict it cannot win.

Worse, they argue, the United States has no vested interest in either side winning the war and that only an internationally supported diplomatic solution could stop the bleeding and stabilise the situation.

They see a reluctant United States being dragged to war by its clients, Israel and Saudi Arabia, in a clear case of the tail wagging the dog.

But these same voices could hardly have been heard over the portentous beating of the drums of war within and outside Washington.

Indeed, it’s mind-boggling how the US establishment and media have switched from total scepticism to ready enthusiasm for military intervention as soon as the administration began to change its position.

Instead of referring to the “disastrous” decision to attack Iraq in 2003, they now refer to what they deem to be “successful” interventions in Kosovo and Libya.

The bulk of their argument is based on legal and moral grounds, and mainly in response to the recent alleged chemical attack that has reportedly killed around a thousand people.

Legal chemistry

The legal justification for a unilateral or NATO military attack is questionable at best.

Damascus isn’t a signatory to the chemical and biological treaties, and Washington cannot make a case that Syria has violated any of its international legal obligations, regardless of whether it used poison gas.

While US Vice President Joseph Biden argued recently that Syria’s use of chemical weapons violates international norms, he didn’t claim it violated any laws.

And President Obama has argued on several occasions that the red line he drew for Assad on the use of chemical weapons is an international – not American – red line and it’s up to the international community to hold him responsible for breaking the international norm.

According to the UN Charter, Washington has no legal right to intervene in Syria’s “internal conflict” without a UN Security Council resolution.

Stretching the case against the use of chemical weapons to constitute a threat to US national security, and hence justify an attack on the basis of the right to self-defence, is far-fetched.

Some are arguing that international law has evolved since Rwanda and Kosovo and that the US could, arguably, claim to be setting new legal precedence. But this is a very thin argument that doesn’t hold water.

Humanitarian law and the principle of “Responsibility to Protect”, do not justify military action without a UN Security Council resolution specifically sanctioning the use of force under chapter seven.

Legitimate illegality

That’s why many in Washington advocate a military strike without a UN Security Council resolution along the lines of the1999 US/NATO bombardment of Belgrade to save Kosovo from its wrath.

It’s been promoted as a clear precedent of acting illegally but legitimately – as concluded by the International Independent Commission on Kosovo.

But the Obama administration hasn’t justified the need for action on humanitarian grounds even if it has repeatedly condemned the Syrian regime’s use of excessive force against its own people.

Besides, Washington has shown no heart to interfere militarily in Syria despite the killing of more than 100,000 people and the destruction of the country.

And unlike the intervention against Serbia, that paved the way for NATO deployment in Kosovo, the Obama administration has made it clear that any intervention in Syria would not be aimed at regime-change or to pave the way for boots on the ground.

Alas, in the case of Kosovo, despite 38,000 aerial sorties over 78 days of NATO bombardment, the real ethnic cleansing continued unabated and even intensified after the bombing.

If this is the precedent, expect the regime to carry out worse atrocities when the bombing begins, just as an invigorated opposition goes violently on the offensive.

Strategic interests

A realistic reading of US military decisions looks for the strategic, not moral or legal, imperatives. These include, but are by no means restricted to, the use of chemical weapons.

Remember, President Obama’s red line wasn’t only for Syria to respect, but also for the United States to abide by. In other words, the self-imposed red line has narrowed Washington’s room for military maneuvers and placed any future American use of force in Assad’s hands.

So in Washington, a chemical attack carried out by the Syrian regime is seen primarily as an attack on US credibility and power of deterrence. How could the Obama administration keep quiet or look the other way when Assad violates this implicit understanding, humiliating the United States in the process?

Regardless of whether Assad did indeed give Washington a motive, or if Obama is using the chemical attack as a pretext, the decision to intervene militarily is more than a punitive response.

It signals an implicit admission of failure in Syria over the past two years, and a major departure from a policy of reluctant, limited and indirect interference – the poverty of intervention by proxy.

Over the last several months, the Assad regime has been able to regain the initiative thanks to robust and direct support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. It has, in the process, humiliated Washington and its clients in the region.

A victory for Iran and its regional allies in Syria would severely weaken US influence and pave the way for more, not less, challenges in neighbouring countries.

Therefore, the Obama administration seems to have concluded that the only policy worse than intervention is the lack of it.

And while a military strike wouldn’t solve the intractable challenges on the ground, let alone lead to stability, it would weaken Assad and expose his military machine.

Depending on the breadth and scope of any American military bombing, the Syrian military could find itself in dire straits if the US takes the more lethal option.

That’s why there are calls to design the military intervention in a way that ensures, not precludes, a diplomatic solution in its aftermath.

But if the military strikes are meant only to correct the “balance of violence” between the regime and the opposition, then Syria will find itself in even deeper peril.

There is no telling where it all goes when the actual military escalation starts, considering the numerous strategic variables and players.

The strategic imperatives have already bypassed Syria’s wellbeing. As the “indispensable nation”, the United States, acts out of greater strategic interest, Syria might as well be the dispensable nation in the quest for the assumed “greater good”.