Evidence of chemical weapons attacks on civilian populations in Syria last week added a barbarous dimension to an already heart-wrenching humanitarian disaster that has been unfolding in Syria over the past two years. The Obama administration asserts that the loathsome Assad regime has crossed a “red line” set by the President of the United States. Such a breach, says Obama, justifies U.S. military intervention.
No one doubts that the perpetrators of such grotesque violence should be held accountable. Yet the United Nations–the legitimate investigatory entity in such international crises–is still evaluating the scope and responsibility for the attacks. More importantly, accountability should come from law, supported by the international community, not in the form of “punishment” meted out unilaterally by the United States in the form of a rain of missiles.
Many have raised important objections about the legality of the proposed act of war by the United States, under both U.S. constitutional requirements and international law. Others have warned about the foreign policy consequences of yet another U.S. intervention in this incredibly fraught region during a time of tinderbox tensions. Even setting those critical legal and geopolitical debates to one side, one manifest lesson from recent interventionist forays, even when justified on humanitarian grounds, is that U.S. militarism does not, in fact, advance human rights. The U.S. and Iraq are still reeling from a decade-long illegal war that sold to the American people as a quick military intervention and as a necessary response to displace a brutal dictator “who gassed his own people.”
Hundreds of thousands, including many civilians and children, died as a result of that U.S.-initiated war. A decade later, Iraqis and U.S. soldiers are still suffering from the catastrophic aftermath of this war, including skyrocketing rates of birth defects and cancer from the U.S.’s own use of widely condemned weapons such as white phosphorous, napalm-class weapons and weapons containing depleted uranium. The United States should be accounting–financially and morally–for the devastation it has imposed, rather than readying to engage in additional belligerency.
We should also reject the gauzy optimism portrayed by advocates of “surgical strikes,” suggesting as they do some clinical, cost-free violence. We know well from U.S. drone policy, also pitched as “surgical,” that numerous civilian casualties inevitably follow aerial bombing, even as U.S. officials continue to implausibly deny the broader destruction such bombing inflicts. In a region as densely populated as Syria, serious risks of large civilian casualties are present from U.S. strikes. And in a conflict so multi-faceted and entrenched, the intervention may wind up prolonged and counterproductive. There can be no surgical strikes in this context.
The twisted calculus of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, its past complicity with the worst human rights abuses in the region, the remarkably complex political situation in Syria, as well as President Obama’s current stalemate with the Assad regime’s staunch supporter, Iran, should raise several red flags about the administration’s underlying motives for military intervention in Syria. Those red flags, among others, were sufficiently serious to drive the British Parliament to withhold its support for Western military intervention.
It should compel the American people to resist in the same way. U.S. efforts should be directed to fostering a broader political and diplomatic resolution to this brutal conflict and a resort to legal, as opposed to military, coercion—as slow-moving and undramatic as such a process may seem.