The situation in Syria represents one of the thornier moral problems in recent years. Not in terms of the recent chemical weapons attack—that is clearly a moral outrage, and its perpetrators (the Assad regime, in my view) are war criminals. But Syria is complicated by recent American history and widespread moral ambivalence among U.S. citizens and others.
No one wants another Iraq. The resolution currently before Congress imposes strict qualifications on any American intervention to “punish” the Syrian regime. Yet there is a widespread belief among the American public (and the British public, and many other citizens in many other countries) that these qualifications are meaningless, and any American intervention would automatically lead to escalation and U.S. involvement in Syria’s horrific civil war. There is also a strain of xenophobia at work, in which ordinary people shrug off the gassing of some 1400 civilians in Syria and focus on more prosaic mattters at home.
Bashar al-Assad, war criminal
Yet another argument against intervention is that the U.S. is applying selective morality in targeting Syria. After all, we didn’t go after Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds (though we soon went after him for other reasons). This is a valid argument, in that we have been selective in our moral criteria. But I don’t believe it is a sufficient argument against intervention in this case.
I am for U.S. strikes against Assad, for the following reasons:
1. Assad and his top officials are guilty of violating military and moral conventions that go back nearly a century. Chemical weapons are universally agreed to have no place on the battlefield, or elsewhere. Their use is an atrocious human rights violation, and the people who use them are justifiably regarded as criminals. We need to maintain this convention, along with the prohibition against biological and nuclear weapons.
2. The fact that the U.S. is being selective in its moral criteria, or for that matter has been guilty of its own criminal behavior in the past, does not render Assad’s behavior moot. Obama has a more developed moral sense than his predecessors, at least as regards this behavior. Just because we have not acted correctly in the past does not mean we should not do so now.
3. Failure to punish the perpetrators for the use of these weapons will put us on a slippery slope where they will be used again, and with increasing frequency. It also opens the door for other totalitarian regimes to test the world’s will when it comes to forbidden weapons. There are already rogue actors on the nuclear stage; do you want them to feel the world is powerless to intervene?
4. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s overwhelming technical capabilities, and our track record with special forces and drones, I have to think the U.S. is capable of targeting Assad himself and his henchmen, while selectively degrading the Syrian regime’s military capability overall. And targeting Assad, along with top military officials, is probably the most effective—and just—punishment we can devise.
Having outlined these reasons, it is still necessary to add caveats. We DO need to avoid indiscriminate use of force and civilian casualties in Syria. Killing more Syrians makes no sense on any level. Obama needs to make a strong case that we can act with precision and restraint, and only destroy what should be destroyed, then get out.
I realize there is a strong chance that Congress will not approve U.S. action. In that case, there should be no American intervention. Obama made a conscious decision to go to Congress (misguided, in my opinion, given the dysfunctional nature of the current Congress), so he needs to abide by their decision. There would still be things the U.S. could do, though. One is labeling Assad as the war criminal he is, and pursuing charges against him. That might take years, but so be it. We don’t know what the outcome in Syria is going to be; Assad might still be captured. If he is, he should stand trial for his crimes.
We will most likely have a chance to see the U.N. report from Syria before any U.S. action occurs. Assuming it verifies that the Assad regime was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack, a strong, targeted and punitive U.S. response remains the best choice.