At least for now, the U.S. rush to war has been put on hold. In a surprise move President Barack Obama announced on August 31 that he would seek congressional approval for attacking Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces. Although the president made clear his intention to launch such an attack, hopes have grown that the extra time for reflection will allow cooler heads to prevail.
How should U.S. citizens and their elected representatives decide this dreadful question? A defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified.
In my view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards. Let us review them in order.
A nation-state flagrantly committing the human-rights abuse of chemical warfare would seem to satisfy the just-cause criterion. But do we really know with certainty exactly what happened, and who is culpable? Just days prior to Secretary of State John Kerry’s Sept 1 assertion of irrefutable evidence incriminating the Assad regime, the State Department, in an official press conference, had admitted ignorance. Meanwhile, a UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, which would have required several months to complete, was curtailed after only a few days so that the inspection team could avoid being caught in what appeared to be an imminent U.S. cruise-missile attack.
Several factors cast doubt on whether the evidence is as irrefutable and conclusive as the secretary of state contends. First, freelance journalists who visited the grisly scene of the chemical weapons incident in Ghouta and interviewed local residents reported that “many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible” for the atrocity. Additional doubt surrounds the exact number of civilian casualties. The United States claims that the number exceeds 1,400, including more than four hundred children. According to the Associated Press, however, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization monitoring casualties in the country, has confirmed 502 deaths. And on Sept. 2 France, which supports the U.S. attack, added to the confusion when it released an unclassified intelligence report listing just 281 fatalities. Such uncertainty only underscores the need for a full and careful UN investigation.
Regarding the nature of the incident and the type of weapon involved, Jean Pascal Zanders, a former EU chemical-weapons expert, observes that the evidence publicly presented so far offers no certainty about whether sarin gas was in fact used. Sarin is so toxic that it is not uncommon for medical workers themselves to become fatally afflicted. So far there seems to be no evidence of that in Ghouta. Zanders insists that the photographic evidence that Kerry cited angrily is also inconclusive. “You do not know where [the images] were taken,” he notes, “or even by whom they were taken. Or, whether they [are from] the same incident or from different incidents.” The images merely tell us “that something has happened, somewhere, at some point.”
Finally, it is hard not to compare Kerry’s current claims, which are long on assertions of what “we know” and what “we assess” but short on hard evidence, to those made at the UN by Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003. Then, Powell insisted that “irrefutable evidence” indicated that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—evidence that not only turned out to be false, but was also later revealed to have been extracted under torture. Today, a decade later, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, looks back on Powell's testimony, which he had helped to prepare, as “the lowest point of my life.” The intelligence on Syria, he says, “seems like the same thing again.”
Wilkerson is not the only high-ranking former official to express his doubts. William Polk, who served on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff in the Kennedy administration, expresses concern that the UN inspection was cut short, and concludes that “until more conclusive evidence is available…I believe a court would conclude that the case against the Syrian government was ‘not proven.’” Similar concerns are raised by Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. In his view, discrepancies in the numbers of civilians alleged to have been killed suggest that the available data may not be reliable. “It’s extremely important,” Cordesman writes, “that the U.S. intelligence community gets its work right, and that the Syria chemical weapons study is accurate.” He emphasizes that in the run-up to the Iraq war, Colin Powell presented the UN with evidence that turned out to be “almost totally false.”
Does the United States have legitimate authority to carry out a unilateral attack on Syria, a sovereign nation? Obama proposes to launch a “punitive” strike with or without congressional approval, without authorization by the UN Security Council, and without NATO involvement. The Arab League will not endorse any attack and major U.S. allies, including Germany, are opposed. In Britain Prime Minister David Cameron, who backed U.S. plans for an attack, suffered a stunning parliamentary defeat.
Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who headed the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq, writes that “[e]ven if Assad used chemical weapons, the West has no mandate to act as a global policeman. By ordering air strikes against Syria without UN Security Council support, Obama will be doing the same as Bush in 2003.” Writing in Foreign Affairs, UC Irvine law professor David A. Kaye, a former high-level State Department adviser, concurs:
Unless the Security Council authorizes action, the United States and its participating allies would be in violation of international law in using military force against Syria. Call it what you will: “illegal” if you are frank, “inconsistent with international law” if you are a lawyer, “difficult to defend” if you are a diplomat. They all amount to the same thing: No international law supports a U.S. attack on Syria, even in the face of mass killing by internationally prohibited weapons.
The recent events in Great Britain’s Parliament are instructive here. To his credit, Prime Minister Cameron said his country would not participate in the proposed military intervention immediately after he failed to gain the approval he sought from Parliament. He recognized that such approval was a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for legitimizing any attack on Syria. This is what a “functioning democracy” looks like—the kind Jimmy Carter recently suggested we no longer have.
But even if Obama were successful in persuading a majority of Congress to approve, that approval by itself would not be enough to legitimize an illegitimate military attack. In the eyes of much of the world, a unilateral U.S. attack on Syria would lack not only legal but also moral authority. As Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, has written:
The U.S. government rains drone missiles on civilian human targets anywhere in the world, continues to operate Guantanamo in the face of universal condemnation, whitewashed Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and the torture memos, committed aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan, and invests billions to sustain its unlawful global surveillance capabilities. Still, it has the audacity to lecture the world about “norm enforcement” in the wake of the chemical-weapons attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus.
Falk might well have added—if all that were not more than enough—that recently released CIA files show that twenty-five years ago, America helped Saddam Hussein as he gassed Iran. Legitimate authority? In view of pressing legal and moral considerations, it is hard to see how the U.S. possesses enough of it to carry out a punitive strike against Syria.
This criterion requires that all non-military options be exhausted before military force is deployed. That would not seem to be the case with Syria. Why is Obama in such a hurry to launch an attack? Why not err on the side of diplomacy? Hans Blix speaks powerfully to this point. “Condemnation is not enough,” he acknowledges:
With a hundred thousand killed and millions of refugees, the civil war itself is a “moral obscenity.” The council must seek to achieve not just an end to chemical-weapons use but an end to all weapons use, by a ceasefire. As was planned not long ago by the United States and Russia, the council must seek to bring about a conference at which relevant parties and states can form an interim authority. The alternative is continued civil war in Syria and worsening international relations.
Is the ending of active hostilities totally unrealistic? Let us be clear that the government in Syria, like its rebel opponents, depends on a flow of weapons, munitions, and money from the outside. It is reported that much of the rebels’ material support comes from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey; and much of the government’s support reportedly comes from Russia and Iran. These supplier countries have leverage. Agreement should be sought, under the auspices of the UN Security Council, that all parties giving such support demand that their clients accept a ceasefire—or risk losing any further support.
As the International Crisis Group urges, the only viable solution to the crisis is political. Far-reaching concessions will be required from all parties. The overriding priority is to revitalize the search for a political settlement. A unilateral U.S. attack would not serve to advance that goal, but to postpone it or demolish it.
Reasonable Chance of Success
The final criterion is a prudential one, and in this case it forces us to face the likelihood that a small symbolic attack on the Syrian regime has little chance of success, while a larger attack risks catastrophic danger. At least six different nations have an interest in the Syrian conflict. The entire region is bristling with military hardware. Russian ships that have steamed into the Eastern Mediterranean are able to detect cruise missiles fired from U.S. vessels, and could warn Damascus. They are also equipped with radar jamming devices that could interfere with ships in the region.
Whether Russia could be kept on the sidelines is a roll of the dice. Iran, for its part, has threatened to retaliate if the United States strikes against Syria. General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has stated that an attack on Syria “means the immediate destruction of Israel.” Observers think a retaliatory attack on Saudi Arabia might be more likely. Needless to say, neither prospect is cheering. So it is not surprising that, according to the Washington Post, the planned strike “is being received with serious reservations by many in the U.S. military, which is coping with the scars of two lengthy wars and a rapidly contracting budget.” The military has no interest in a symbolic strike that could easily cause the situation in Syria to spin out of control. Nor is it eager for a deeper, extended, and probably futile military involvement.
In short, there is little reason to believe that this quixotic adventure would have a reasonable chance of success—and it’s important to note that even a symbolic strike, launched under the doctrine of “right to protect,” would leave significant civilian casualties in its wake. That there exist so few good outcomes and so many bad ones makes Obama’s failure to meet the “reasonable success” criterion perhaps the most troubling failure of all. “There you have it,” John Reed, national security reporter for Foreign Policy magazine, comments sardonically: “an entire, heavily armed corner of the world on edge, a dictator desperately fighting for his life, and an Iran that might have something to prove. What could possibly go wrong?”
It is worth remembering that much of the violence in the Syrian war has involved war crimes on both sides, with civilians directly targeted all around. Given the awful reality of more than a hundred thousand Syrians killed by indiscriminate means—more than half of them civilians—a narrow focus on chemical warfare may be misplaced. While there are surely no happy solutions to the ongoing catastrophe, perhaps the most credible form of humanitarian intervention would be to try to end the war crimes by taking measures to end the war itself. What Obama has proposed has no chance of doing that. By just-war criteria, the impending attack cannot be justified.