News reports suggest President Obama is tailoring military action against Syria to achieve the goal of deterring Bashar al-Assad from ever using chemical weapons again in the future, following what the Americans, the British and the French view as their certain use by al-Assad’s forces last week.
This strategy is flawed, for several reasons.
First, it seeks to establish a false hierarchy of legal prohibitions, according to which the use of chemical weapons justifies a military response but the widespread commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Syrian people does not.
No such distinction or hierarchy of norms and legal justifications exists under international law.
Moreover, the very attempt to draw such a distinction tends to establish a “safe harbor” for despotic regimes to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity without fear of military reaction by the civilized nations of the world, so long as they do not use chemical weapons. For this reason, such a strategy would represent an extremely bad precedent.
Second, the illusion that such fine distinctions will deter future behavior is based on what is known as “the rational actor fallacy”, the assumption that the army and security forces of Syria will respond to the dictates of a single rational mind as outside factors change the calculus of costs and benefits in that unitary mind. This assumption is highly dubious even now, and is likely to become even weaker should the Syrian state move toward collapse or implosion in the future.
Third, such a military strategy does not solve the problem of the large number of chemical weapons that exist in Syria, and the risks of their falling into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliates or other terrorist groups, including Hezbollah.
Finally, such a limited set of strategic objectives is not likely to bring al-Assad’s ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity to a halt, or to bring those responsible for the commission of such crimes to justice.
One is reminded of President Obama’s drawing the distinction between “degrading” the Taliban, as opposed to achieving victory over the Taliban, in Afghanistan. In the real world, such fine intellectual distinctions tend to get lost.
What is needed in Syria is military action to bring to a halt the commission of all war crimes and crimes against humanity, not merely those committed with chemical weapons.
What is at stake goes far beyond the American president enforcing his own arbitrary “red line”. It involves whether the civilized nations of the world will finally act effectively to safeguard their most fundamental values–the prohibitions against war crimes and crimes against humanity, codified in the Nuremberg Principles (1950) and in the Statute of Rome of the International Criminal Court.
If not now, when?
The Trenchant Observer
For previous articles on Syria by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria Page, or click here.