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September 03, 2013

Some Questions That Skeptics of a Syria Attack Should Ask Themselves
Posted by David Shorr

File:Syrian soldier aims an AK-47.jpgWe really have to get a few things straight for this debate over attacking Syria to be remotely constructive. Above all, we need to focus on the proposition at hand -- the proposed action and its intended aims -- rather than loading it up with the full weight of this awful situation in Syria.

The confusion has run rampant across the recent media coverage and commentary. For every paragraph on President Obama's proposal to punish Assad for using chemical weapons there is another graf criticizing the plan for failing to resolve the core conflict.

The first step to an intellectually honest debate, therefore, is for everyone involved to get clear on the first-order questions: is the use of chemical weapons in itself a distinct transgression and grounds for a discrete punishment by force?

For my part, I believe that the chemical weapons attacks stand out from Assad's sustained brutality, even in the context of the wanton massacres he has inflicted on his own people. Likewise I think that military strikes to uphold the taboo against CW can duly punish the Assad regime without further ensnaring the United States in the war. No, President Obama's proposed strikes will not bring the political resolution to the conflict that Syria so desperately needs. Achieving a peaceful settlement is a worthy aim, no question. It is also a lot harder to achieve than President Obama's objective of making Assad pay a price for gasing his own people. 

Having addressed some of the issues raised by skeptics of the proposed strikes, I'll pose the rest of my points in the form of questions I'd like them to consider. 

1. Did Assad cross a line by using chemical weapons? We can stipulate that Assad has flouted a number of humanitarian norms in the two years of his bloody campaign to hold onto power. I'm asking whether these most recent 1,000 killings stand out from the 100,000 others. Being something of a lapsed old-school arms control wonk, I place real value in international norms against categories of weapons. And for the other pertinent body of global norms, international humanitarian law, the essential point is to rule some actions out-of-bounds even amidst the horrors of war. In historical terms, we could consider punishing Assad as a way of honoring the victims of the World War I gas attacks that originally shocked the global conscience about chem weapons. I remember 20-25 years ago when the Chemical Weaopns Convention was negotiated, the first President Bush was said to be spurred by his mother's memories of that war. 

2. Is intervening really an all-or-nothing proposition? I see a lot of arguments that it's only worth striking Syrian government forces if it will tip the balance of the war in the opposition's favor -- or that initially limited strikes would inevitably lead to wider US involvement. On the latter, I don't accept the premise that our military actions cannot be kept within a relatively modest scale and objectives. Tom Nichols gives a similar view (but with the added historical perspective befitting a scholar) in his own excellent blog post / list over at the War Room. My own proposed aims are even narrower than Tom's: inflict significant damage on Syria's military capability so that Assad pays a price for his CW attacks. 

Then on the former argument about changing the course of the war, we notably have the McCain-Graham position -- and it's a strange one. Flying in the face of the American public's war-weariness, the Senate's two amigos are threatening to oppose President Obama's proposal as not enough. They want the US to get deeper into the Syrian war. Surely Senators Graham and McCain realize there's zero chance of Congress approving wider US involvement; can they explain their calculation that a limited strike would be worse than none at all? Now I'll admit that this leaves the question of how, exactly, to calibrate the attack to the punitive objective (on these difficulties, see Fred Kaplan over at Slate). My point here is to defend the very notion of a limited action. 

3. Can the taboo against chem weapons be upheld without a military strike? I don't think so. At this point, the only way to enforce the international norm is by force -- as I say, hitting Assad where it hurts militarily. The only serious alternative I've seen outlined came from our own Heather Hurlburt (aka @natsecHeather) in a series of tweets on August 29, but I think it's too late for that. While President Obama himself might draw lessons about the trickiness of red lines, even those might not spare us from the dilemmas posed by the August 21 chemical attack.

4. What is the likelihood of a Syrian / Hezbollah / Iranian retaliation, and why would they want to?  When it comes to the possibility of the US or allies facing retaliation for our attack, we have to distinguish between plausibility and probability. Just because we can imagine reprisals from Syria or its allies, doesn't mean they'd happen. I don't mean to be glib or dismissive of these parties' asymmetric options; I'd just highlight the difference when the United States is already fully involved in a war versus intervening from the outside. In other words, does Damascus or Tehran really want to provoke the US to ? I think Assad has his hands full with the opponents already lined up against him. (Actually, it's the Syrian opposition who have an interest in drawing the US all the way into the conflict.)

And what about multilateralism? The last question is one I direct to myself. I am keenly aware that the world community is not unified as it was in 2011 against Ghaddafi. And I can't really add much to Ross Douthat's pitch-perfect column on the subject. This is where the comparison to Kosovo is most apt, an intervention that could be legitimate without being legal. Because I can't see a failure to punish Assad as the right thing. 

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