In reading and considering the crisis in Syria my first thought is that many people are confusing questions here. Many see this as a decision on whether to take military action against Assad and for the rebels. It is not. Nor would I support such a decision. The war in Syria has too many players, too many entanglements with other groups and countries, and is its reality too murky and cloudy for us to even have a chance of determining whether our actions would do more good or harm. And this is not even considering the cost in human lives of our soldiers as well as money that such an action would cost. So, not only no, but hell no on getting involved militarily in Syria as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fortunately, President Obama is not considering getting involved this way in Syria.
What is being seriously considered is whether to take military action (most likely a round or two of cruise missiles) against Syria due to its use of chemical weapons. Many seem to think this another example of the U.S. setting its own moral policy as it wishes and for its own convenience. However, the use of such weapons was banned by the international community after WW 1. This ban was formalized in the Geneva Convention in 1925. This Convention has been expanded over the years to more fully cover chemical weapons and to also include biological weapons. So, rather than being enforcing a United States policy this action would be done in order to enforce this international Convention.
The agency responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); consisting of 189 member countries and based in the Netherlands.
While there have been some lapses and failures, overall this Convention has been successful. For example, one of the primary tasks of the OPCW is the monitoring of chemical stockpiles and verifying their elimination. As of 2/28/2013 78.57%, of the world’s declared stockpile of 71,196 metric tons of chemical agent and 45.56%, of the 8.67 million chemical munitions and containers covered by the CWC have been verifiably destroyed.
The United States is among those 189 member states of this organisation. One thing about being a member is that all member states have pledged to “provide assistance and protection to fellow Member States threatened by the use of chemical weapons or attacked with chemical weapons.”
This is the basis for President Obama’s proposed military action; humanitarian concerns due to the breaking of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Now that the real question has, hopefully, been clarified here, let’s look at some of the arguments being made against carrying out a military strike on Syria.
First up is that bullets, bombs, and other such weapons kill a person just as dead. Given this, then why the big concern over chemical weapons? This argument against action really does not hold up very well when examined closely.
- Chemical weapons disperses and spreads. It covers a much wider area than bullets do.
- Of course, bombs also cover wider areas than bullets too. However, bombs, like bullets, can be aimed, often surprisingly accurately nowadays. This is not so true of chemical weapons. As said earlier, it disperses and spreads. It can go into areas not targeted very easily. Winds can carry it far beyond its target area.
- Chemical weapons can and do contaminate the ground. If it reaches a water supply – rivers and streams, underground sources – it will continue to kill people in areas that were not even close to the target area.
All of the above is why they are considered weapons of mass destruction, along with nuclear and biological weapons. It is why they were banned. Consider this too, they were widely used during WW 1 and despite the horrors of WW1 with its trench warfare, the first use of tanks and aerial bombardments gas warfare was the only weapon that was immediately agreed upon to be banned. It seems that those with first hand knowledge of the types of death that bullets and bombs can deal out found the use of chemical weapons even more horrific. “They inflict excruciating and long term suffering on a mass scale.”
Also, for myself, someday in the possibly never to be future, I would like to see bullets and bombs along with all weapons of war outlawed. We have in place limits to nuclear weapons, to biological weapons, and to chemical weapons. Why in the world would we want to allow one to come back into play? Isn’t it a good thing that we do have limits, imperfect as they are, on some types of weapons and warfares? I think it is and I believe it to be worth maintaining and enforcing. To not do so is to take a step backwards from the goal of a world without war.
Another argument made against the use of military force against Syria for its use of chemical weapons is that we did nothing when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran during the Iraq/Iran war. In fact, the U.S. provided satellite imagery to help guide Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. And both the international community and the U.S. knew that Hussein had used gas on his own people. And nothing was done.
However, this argument also fails. Just because we failed to do the right thing one time is no justification for failing to do so again. Those who use this argument justifiably condemn the U.S.’s actions and the international community’s inactions during Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. To then try to use this inaction as an argument to again not take action is taking hypocrisy to new heights. Just as a side note, Iraq became a member state of the OPCW in 2009.
It has also been brought up that the United States (as well as other countries) use such chemicals as napalm, white phosphorous, and the use of depleted uranium in munitions and that therefore the use of military force in Syria for their use of chemical weapons is not justified.
Short answer to this – those materials are not covered by the CWC. Should they be? Possibly, although their range and spread is not as dangerous as that of chemical gas. But I would not object. Indeed, I would argue that they should be either added to the Chemical Weapons Convention or banned in another agreement (for example, there is work to come to an agreement to ban depleted uranium munitions – although it is slow going at this point). However, just because they are not included is no reason to not enforce the ban on those that are included.
Another criticism is that the United States should wait for the UN, or at the very least create an international coalition. Now, I agree that the vast majority of the time we should work through international agencies such as the UN and NATO, or within an international coalition. However, I also believe that there can be times when doing it alone might be necessary. Our international organizations are imperfect and flawed. While much better than not having any such organizations, they are limited. For example, needed actions by the UN can be indefinitely blocked by just one country. Because of this, I can see that there might arise cases where unilateral actions might be necessary.
Having said this let me also state that the vast majority of the times when we have done so were not justified. My point in bringing this up is to show that because we may have to act unilaterally does not automatically mean that what we are doing is wrong. It may be, but again it could also be the right thing to do.
In regards to the UN investigation team, they were tasked only with determining whether chemical weapons had been used or not; not with who used them. Unless they find that no chemical attack occurred their report is going to be of limited to no use in determining who used them.
I would also point out that there is some limited international support for U.S. action. France, Canada, Turkey, and several other countries have given their verbal support for US action.
To this point it must sound as if I approve of a military strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
However, I do not. Why?
The evidence that Syria used chemical weapons has not been shown in detail to the public and examined. When Secretary of State Kerry laid out the evidence for Syria using chemical weapons there was a decided lack of specific information. Security concerns were, as usual, the cited reasons for this.
Personally I tend to believe that the Obama administration does have good evidence that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons against the rebels. First off, there was the chemical weapon attack back in May of this year. If President Obama had wanted to take action in Syria and was just looking for an excuse to do so then he could have done this then. However he did not, and suffered a lot of criticism for not doing so after having drawn the red line in the sand. So, the fact that he is urging it this time seems to me to indicate that this time they do have good evidence.
Also, is it really that hard to believe that after all that Assad has done to his own people that he would not use the chemical weapons that we know he has if he felt them needed? For myself, I find it very easy to believe.
However since Iraq and the total failure to find the WMD they were supposed to have the public has, justifiably, become skeptical of our government’s claims. My personal feelings on this are really not relevant here since had this occurred during another President’s watch these feelings might be different. The public deserves to know the evidence, especially if we are going to go it alone again. The volatile nature of the Middle East in general, the reputation of the United States in that region, the political alliances involved and the chaotic blood soaked chaos that is Syria requires clear cut and undeniable evidence before we act. This is not only necessary for the American public but for the international community too.
We did not get that though. We were given the results of the intelligence gathering, but not the intelligence itself, not the details of how it was gathered and the raw data. If President Obama was wanting to do this right then he should have pulled any human assets that might be compromised by revealing the evidence (and take the hit on having even less information in this region), and be willing to endure the consequences of letting those who do wish us harm to know what we are capable of doing in terms of intercepting communications and presented the evidence for the world to see.
However, he did not. Nor did he lay out a case for why we shouldn’t wait and see what happens in the UN with its report on whether there was a chemical attack.
Just a couple of hours ago President Obama again strongly urged military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. This time though he stated that he would try to get congressional approval for any military action against Syria. I think this the prudent thing for him to do. It avoids a domestic dispute on whether his actions are Constitutional or not, and allows more time for the UN report and to see which way the international dust settles.
In fact, I wonder if Obama had this in mind all along. Having made the red line remark, President Obama was taking flak for not doing anything when Syria did (or at least appears they did) use chemical weapons. By taking a hard stand based on (I assume) stronger evidence of Syria’s guilt he made his opponents argue against this action. This gets him out of the doing nothing charge since now his opponents were arguing for him to do exactly that. And now he gets to dump this in the lap of Congress, where, unless new developments come to light, nothing will happen.
If so, then this was a good political move on his part. And if it caused Assad to sweat a bit waiting for some sort of military action, then so much the better. Especially since this is probably going to be the only consequence of his use of chemical weapons, despite international conventions.
However, taking a look at the larger picture this is shaping up to be a failure not only for the U.S., but also for the international community. We keep saying never again, never again. No more chemical weapons being used on the battlefield or on unruly civilians. We have a wonderful Convention signed by 189 nations against the use of chemical weapons. And while much good work and progress has been made under this Convention, when it looks likely that chemical weapons were used again – on both the battlefield and bothersome civilians, a twofer – we are, again, not going to take action.
Instead of never again it is again and again and again.
The UN report may (I think it will) find that chemical weapons were used. But they had no mandate to find out who used it and so no responsibility will be assigned to whoever committed this internationally agreed upon atrocity. And in the unlikely event that some action will be taken, it will not be military. After all, what would be the use? With the amount of time that has elapsed any chemical munitions will have been moved and hidden again. All we would do would be to hit where they used to be. At best. As for economic sanctions, given the status of Syria’s economy right now such sanctions would be a joke.
As for Congress, given the public opinion against a military strike and the lack of strong international support, I would be very surprised if they approved the use of military force. Very surprised.
So again, what we said would never happened again has happened again. Despite the conventions, despite the international organizations, despite the rhetoric. And many will proclaim it good that we took no action. Not just the US, but the international community.
It seems we have a ways to go before we are anything more than a group of barbarians with delusions of being civilized.