Syria: Prepare for Intervention

I have argued against US intervention in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, although not here in this blog. Unfortunately, things have now changed and I am being forced to rethink.

Reports have been coming in lately that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria. Starting last August, President Barack Obama has stated that the use of chemical weapons, or their transfer to terrorist groups, would “change the equation” for Barack Obama and be a "grave mistake” for the Syrian regime. At the time the president first made these statements, the Syrian regime replied to them with its own deterrent demand, saying that it would never use chemical weapons unless Syria were invaded from the outside. Until now, that status quo seemed to be holding. Regardless of all the discussion over where the “red lines” actually lie, President Obama needs to give signs that the United States is actually serious about its threat not to allow the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Promises are important. This is because following through on past promises allows a person, state, or government to build a reputation for credibility. This, in turn, allows it to avoid, in this case, military action, and the death and destruction that come with it, in the future by simply being able to threaten action rather than constantly having to carry through with it.

The importance of promises can be overstated, however. There is evidence that, during the Cold War, the United States worried too much about its credibility and that this led it to act in an overly aggressive manner, leading to unnecessary escalation. Evidence from Soviet archives that opened up in the 1990s indicates that the Soviets actually rarely questioned US resolve when it came to core US interests (the safety of US territory, for example).

Some promises are important, however. When it comes to US interests in far-off places that are not vital to the US economy and do not host US bases, for example, the will of the United States to intervene is indeed questionable. Furthermore, this particular promise is also especially important. The US is interested in using deterrence in areas far away from its core areas of interest. The most important and salient example of this in current politics is Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb. The US has warned several countries against getting a bomb in the past, and yet states like Pakistan and North Korea have obtained nuclear weapons without suffering any US military intervention to stop them. Barack Obama would like Iran to think that this time is different. If the US is unwilling to stand up to a regime terrorizing its citizens with chemical weapons, however, this makes Barack Obama’s alleged commitment to stopping Iran from getting the bomb appear more questionable.

The promise is also important in a narrower way. There is an overriding moral interest in condemning the use of chemical weapons, preventing their use over time, and thus establishing self-maintaining norms against their use. The less the use of chemical, biological, nuclear, and other destructive weapons is permitted, the greater the taboo against their use becomes. As one of the few states in the world with the ability to attempt to enforce such global norms, there is a strong moral argument for the US to act.

So what must be done? The first step is publicly to prepare to intervene. Barack Obama should begin working on plans for military action in Syria, possibly shifting resources towards the eastern Mediterranean in preparation. This will send the right message to the Syrian regime. In the meantime, the US administration should continue to gather evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian regime, but it must be satisfied with clear and convincing evidence rather than evidence that goes "beyond a reasonable doubt,” as this may not be forthcoming. In addition, Obama should inform the rebel leadership that intervention will come only if it agrees to an international tribunal for war crimes, helping to set up institutions and the rule of law afterwards. All this must be more than posturing, however. If this does not bring peace, or at least the cessation of the use of chemical weapons (I leave it to the US Government to decide on these goals, though once intervention has begun, the goal must be an end to the conflict and this should be publicly stated) the US should impose a no-fly zone, while continuing to issue warnings of escalation coupled with a way out for the regime, perhaps in the form of an amnesty for those who abandon it. Such an amnesty must now exclude Assad, however, for he has crossed the line and mustn't be let off.

Failure to surrender plus attacks on US planes will mean greater military involvement, at first with targeted bombings of regime military targets where possible (missile launchers are often located in heavily populated areas). The next step would be to increase the bombing, warning residents by dropping leaflets to evacuate areas targeted for attacks. All this should give the rebels the upper hand. If this fails to turn the tide, a ground operation, preferably with the support of other countries like Turkey, would then be necessary (Britain and France have also encouraged action and should be included).

With any luck, the above steps will not all be necessary. We must accept that they may be, however. There is much at stake in keeping to this promise and so it must be done. Allowing chemical weapons to be used offensively once again with impunity sends the wrong message to the world. And allowing aggressive regimes to cross red lines set by the US without suffering any consequences also sends the wrong message to the US’s adversaries and allies alike. There are many countries in the world that have refrained from building their militaries because of their faith in the US’s ability and willingness to protect them from external aggression. If those countries were to lose that faith, the world would become a much more unstable and dangerous place.


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