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Assad regime charged with the use of chemical weapons

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: Opinions

This week marked a dubious anniversary in our nation’s history—the ten year anniversary of the decision to invade Iraq. After ten years, public opinion has calcified in opposition to the war and those who were the main instigators have been deemed badly misguided at best and war criminals at worst. The interesting fact regarding this anniversary is that it is the first major epoch in American history that I clearly remember following in the news. I had been too young to witness the 9/11 attacks or to truly comprehend their consequences—the Iraq War was the first time I had ever been a true witness to the country declaring war.

I can still remember sitting in class watching President Bush discuss the danger of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction on the student run Channel One News. At the time, I realized the country was going to war and was able to understand why (i.e. the threat of WMDs falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda), but I was not yet old enough to critique the decision. Nonetheless, I remember the news footage of cheering congressmen, and the rallying of America behind the decision. It may be hard to recall today amongst the cloud of anger and sorrow that has surfaced over the Iraq War but it had nearly unanimous support from the people at the time.

Ironically, during the very week that this anniversary surfaced, the world was notified of the potential use of weapons of mass destruction. A report came out released today that it was almost certain that the Assad regime in Syria had used chemical weapons against the rebels. Admittedly, this is not one hundred percent verified and, after our experience with Iraq, further proof of this claim will be necessary. Nonetheless, if true, this report propagates a challenging decision to the United States on the eve of the remembrance of a brazen decision in the past. The United States has, time and time again, warned that it will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction against the people of Syria. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people have died in what should probably be termed a civil war.

The United States, however, has had good reason to be cautious about taking any larger part in the conflict. There is the fact that the rebel leaders are not necessarily our allies and could, if victorious, impose a radical Islamist government a la the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. There is the potential that any western involvement in the war could result in a proxy war between the west and the east, (i.e. China and especially Russia) which in the past has been supportive of the Assad regime. There is the potential for western engagement in the conflict to lead to escalation of the war and thus more civilian deaths. Additionally, there is potential for even a successful invasion to result in a costly occupation and ensuing insurgency a la Iraq. Finally, there is the potential for a massive loss of life and resources on the part of the United States at a time when the country is looking to curb expenditures—a prospect which engenders little political will amongst the population at large.

On the other hand, despite all of these drawbacks, I would argue that this report, if true, necessitates action on the part of the United States for several reasons. First, insofar as the use of weapons of mass destruction leads to a massive loss of life, the United States has an obligation to help prevent what could eventually be hundreds of thousands of deaths. In addition, the United States is a signer of the treaty which bans the use of chemical weapons—thus it has an obligation to intervene to enforce the treaty.

Also, there is the fact that allowing the usage of weapons of mass destruction in war would set a terrible precedent. his would most likely lead to further usage of these weapons, an outcome that inherently threatens global stability. Additionally, this would also most likely lead the further proliferation of these weapons due to their increasing usage in warfare, something that makes it more likely that these weapons fall into the hands of terrorists or other irrational actors who could potentially use them against the United States.

Also, the United States would lose face as a geopolitical actor if it backed off of its pledge to draw the line at chemical weapons. While optical harms are often overblown, it seems fairly likely that other countries will watch the United States’ reaction to this situation to determine if its threats actually carry any weight. Doing nothing will send a bad message in this regard and will likely make it more difficult for the United States to prevent occurrences of this sort in the future. The arguments against intervention in Syria are compelling but can be largely mitigated if the United States proceeds in the correct manner.

The correct course of action, in this case, is basically the opposite of the Iraq War. Unlike that largely unilateral action, the United States should use a bilateral coalition in Syria. This means either somehow coercing the United Nations into action or, should that prove impossible, using NATO. Were these allegations of weapons of mass destruction to prove true, it seems likely that the countries of NATO (especially in Europe) would be willing to support some sort of action against the Assad regime in a similar manner to the way they supported action in Libya.

The next question consists of what action should be taken. In this case, the legitimate threat of a bilateral force could be enough to at least force Assad to the negotiating table. While Russia may do its best to obviate the force, if it is made clear that military force is an option, it seems likely that even a slightly irrational actor would at least consider the proposals being put forward. At the very least, this would hopefully get Assad to stop using chemical weapons.

If this has no effect, however, a bombing campaign similar to that we saw in Libya would also be a reasonable option. While the Syrian air force and military are far stronger than those of Libya, it seems unlikely that they would be able to stand up to a concerted western attack. Additionally, considering the waning loyalty of these military branches, it is unclear how much efficacy they will have anyway. Finally, it seems probable that the west would have support from local actors in the region, including Israel and most likely Turkey due to the threat of the conflict bubbling over into its own borders.
Admittedly, there is the threat of a proxy conflict between east and west, but it seems that even Russia and China would have to bow out if the west and the local actors intervened in the name of preventing a genocide caused by weapons of mass destruction.

After the Assad regime was demolished, the west could then go about assisting in the creation of a viable government. While there is no guarantee that radicals would not take over, it seems that the west could at least have some credibility in preventing this from happening if they helped the government come to power. In addition, the situation in the status quo foments radicalism insofar as the civil war allows for a sort of petri dish of radical militants who are largely radicalized by the ongoing conflict. Thus, if the status quo were to continue, there would most likely be more radicals in Syria and thus more of a threat of terrorism than if there was a successful intervention. If done correctly, this intervention would result in the end of the Assad regime with minimal cost and minimal loss of life. The United States would have acted upon its word and, at the same time, saved tens of thousands of people from a miserable death.

This may strike one as an optimistic appraisal of the merits of intervention in the Syrian situation, especially in light of the memories of Iraq, but there are two important differences which set the two situations apart. First, this would be a bilateral effort with widespread support from other countries due to the fact that Syria had flagrantly violated world conventions by using WMDs. Secondly, this would not be a rebuilding initiative in which American troops would be on the ground in force but rather an assist of sorts to the rebels, who would form the succeeding government.

All of this is, of course, contingent on the fact that these reports do verify. If the future proves them false, I hope that this at least provided you with an interesting thought experiment. There are many lessons that we learned from Iraq and the United States’ foreign policy ought be more careful going forward. Nonetheless, when countries flagrantly disregard the treaties and conventions of the world along with the warnings of the United States, it necessitates action.

A return to the isolationist stance of the 19th century should not be the goal of the United States and if we can prevent a travesty of genocidal proportions from happening at little to no relative cost, I would argue that we ought do so. The Iraq war was poorly planned and poorly carried out, and thereby deserves a poor reputation. That does not mean that we should generalize this principle to all other conflicts, especially those where we have a strong obligation under binding treaties to intervene. If this action is successful (and all of the reasoning I have presented suggests such an outcome), it will be an action that we can celebrate in ten years, as opposed to a time to reflect upon the fact that we could have intervened to prevent a bloodbath but did not.