The images have been horrific. If it is established that the Assad government of Syria did in fact use chemical weapons to kill over one thousand innocent civilians including hundreds of children, then what can and should the U.S. do in response?
The Obama administration is threatening to attack Syria to “send a message to Assad” that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, and a violation of law. (After a meeting of Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham with President Obama at the White House, the intent of the attack has been vastly enlarged to encompass “the degradation of Bashar al-Assad’s capabilities, as well as upgrading the Free Syrian Army”, according to Senator McCain in a subsequent press interview.)
Such an action, without Security Council approval, is a violation of the United Nations Charter, a treaty ratified by the U.S. and validly in force. The U.S. Supreme Court has declared such treaties to be the “supreme law of the land”. So an attack on Syria would be in violation of the U.N. Charter and the U.S. Constitution. This is not a good tool to teach respect for law. It might also spark a wider regional war, and end up causing many more innocent civilians to die than we had ever hoped to save. The history of the wars in Vietnam, with millions of innocents killed, and in Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of innocents killed, showed the limitations of what is possible to be accomplished by military means.
Facing widespread opposition to the plan to attack Syria, both from the American people and in Congress, Secretary Kerry challenged: “Are you willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing?”
But that is not the correct question! The correct question is: “We need to help. What can we do that would help?” Here are some suggestions for the Obama administration:
1. Support international efforts to remoce chemical weapons from the Assad regime, including the recent Russian proposal. Acting with Russia instead of against it, will strengthen the leverage for a longer-term solution that kills fewer civilians, and it will also reinforce international approaches to future situations.
2. Along with Russia and others, work for an immediate cease-fire. Stop delaying the negotiations between the warring parties, hoping for some better time sometime in the future. The U.S. and Russia had worked out a plan for negotiations, called Geneva-II, but after some opposition losses, the U.S. decided to “switch from setting a date, to fortifying the rebels before they sit across the table from the government.” (NY Times, 6/14/13) On the other side, Ali Haidar, Syria’s Minister of National Reconciliation said: “We appeal to not only the U.S. government but to the entire West to make this (negotiations) happen as soon as possible.” (Stars and Stripes, 8/19/13) A political solution is in fact the only solution that contains the germ of a functioning entity ( Syrian state?) after the fighting stops.
2. Work for a U.N. resolution to obtain an arms embargo on all war materiel entering Syria, whether from Russia and Iran to the Assad government, or from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.S. to the opposition.
3. If the U.S. has good evidence that President Assad has ordered the use of chemical weapons, send that evidence to the International Criminal Court, to investigate, to charge, and to bring to trial President Assad for this heinous, abhorrent, crime.
4. As for humanitarian intentions, upwards of 6 million people (one third of the population of Syria) has been displaced from their homes and their jobs, without income,– in desperate need of food, medicine, and shelter. Helping innocent victims will do more than bombs to build U.S. credibility in the region and around the world.
The choice is not whether to attack Syria or to do nothing. There are concrete actions the U.S. can take, as spelled out in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United Nations Charter, and by the International Criminal Court, to deal with these issues. To try to teach the Assad government that it ought not violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, by an American attack that violates both the U.N. Charter and its own Constitution, makes no sense, will not work, and could well result in a much larger war with many additional innocent victims, if history is any guide.
Guntram Mueller is a member of the Board of Directors of Massachusetts Peace Action