Syria Chemical Weapons: Why the Red Line is Actually a Blurry Line


President Obama is justifying his commitment to respond militarily to chemical-weapons attacks committed by the Assad regime by stressing the need to prevent other leaders from crossing the "red line" of chemical weapons use. There has long been international precedent for intervening after human-rights violations by a ruling government, but the general lack of international support for a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria coincides with the reemergence of a debate over America's role in the international community — a debate that's occurring as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.   

In his influential book on international relations, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, noted Stanford University professor Stephen Krasner explains the seemingly anarchic and oftentimes hypocritical global political system. With the exception of contractual arrangements in Europe ensuring religious toleration during the 17th century and some cases involving ethnic groups during the 20th century, Krasner states that powerful nations tend to coerce and use force in order to ensure protections for marginalized groups within a weaker nation. According to Krasner, one of the first people to fully articulate the principle of nonintervention, 18th century jurist Emmerich de Vattel, also wrote that if unjust rule led to internal revolt, external powers would have the right to intervene on behalf of the just party when disorder reached the stage of civil war, with powerful nations oftentimes tying intervention to international stability. However, President Obama's decision to attack Syria would essentially mean risking international stability to uphold an international statute we hold no international legal right to solely enforce.

In a piece published in December of last year, Atlantic writer Dominic Tierney makes the argument that designation of chemical weapons use as especially morally reprehensible seems arbitrary and hypocritical given recent nonintervention in mass killings where conventional weapons were used. It seems unlikely that the U.S. would act unilaterally to uphold this international convention in China, Pakistan, or Russia if the leaders in these countries decided to use chemical weapons on their citizens. If the U.S. decides to punish Syria in order to enforce this statute, we would be setting extra-judicial precedence for such an attack and further solidifying our commitment to international intervention, even as the American public is becoming increasingly war-weary and military budget cuts loom.

During his interview on Meet the Press, Secretary of State John Kerry explained how he believed a military strike on Syrian government forces would also aid the U.S. in preventing Iran from establishing nuclear capabilities.Tying chemical weapons use by Syrian government forces to the security of Israel and the emboldening of U.S. adversaries in the region may be a key aspect of the presdient's appeal to Congress. The facts on the ground in Syria, however, might complicate the president's plea. In an article published on August 26 of this year, Ernesto Londono and Ed O'Keefe of the Washington Post draw parallels between an imminent strike on Syrian government forces and 1998 cruise missile strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, all bearing mixed results. Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who was in charge of the U.S. Central Command when the cruise missiles were launched at suspected terrorist Iraq, perfectly summed up the precariousness of U.S. involvement in Syria, saying, "When there is a humanitarian disaster people want to see something happen. You'll get knee-jerked into first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to." Responding to acts of brutality committed by the Syrian government would follow international precedent and reassure Israel, but could, as many have pointed out, potentially strengthen rebel groups allied with Al-Qaeda. 

The nature of Middle Eastern relations and the situation on the ground in Syria requires us to carefully consider of all available options. The initial urge to act unilaterally may actually lead to further human rights violations by a successor extremist government, possibly requiring future U.S. action. Identifying and supporting moderate democratic elements while further working to cement further international support for Syrian rebels may be an less sexy strategy, but it also has the potential to be a less harmful one. As Stephen Krasner mentioned in Organized Hypocrisy, pressure from religious and ethnic brethren is a more effective deterrent to government repression than use of force. Getting Iran and Lebanon to put pressure on the Syrian regime might be a Herculean task, but considering the alternatives, it must at least be attempted. Furthermore, future threats of military force for actions not relating to issues of national security should be issued very carefully, for as recent events show, pressured leaders often resort to desperate measures, including calling America's bluff.