The storms clouds of a major Middle Eastern war have been gathering for years. A U.S. attack on Syria would bring that war closer, further destabilizing a region already reeling from violence.
It would also have global consequences. Central to the world order that emerged with the evolution of the modern nation state is the idea of sovereignty, the right of states to noninterference in their internal affairs. That concept has been at the heart of international law since World War I and is central to the UN Charter. That world order is now crumbling. An attack on Syria could finalize its downfall.
The idea has gained ground recently that states lose their legitimacy — and sovereignty — if they violate the human rights of their citizens. Other states can then intervene to prevent such violations. But as there is no grand moral tribunal to make these judgments, it is left to governments to make them. Kosovo provided the model and so-called “humanitarian intervention” the rationale. As human rights violations abound in the world, the door is open for nations to pursue their own interests behind the fig leaf of humanitarian intervention.
The U.S. clearly seeks not only to punish the gassing of the Syrian people but also to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime. Its ally, Israel, reportedly supports an attack that will contribute to a stalemate in the war, thereby weakening Syria’s ally, Iran. Both are national interest concerns, not humanitarian.
Whatever resolutions Congress may pass, the UN Charter (Article 2.4) mandates that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Before that, the Nuremberg Charter (Article 6) defines crimes against peace as “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties…or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.”
An attack would be an act of war and seen as such in the Muslim world. Whether it would lead to a larger war is unpredictable. But historically, heads of state have a dismal record of foreseeing the long-term consequences of their military ventures. There is little reason to think that today’s leaders can do any better.
The Syrian regime is a dictatorship, to be sure. But dictatorships are not illegal, and they rarely bother us when they serve our interests. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but we looked the other way when he used chemical weapons against the Kurds during the Iran/Iraq war, in which we favored Iraq following the overthrow in Iran of our “good” dictator, the Shah.
But we should remember that Iraq also represented a relatively progressive and secular Arab regime that was a bulwark against Islamic extremism. We seem to have forgotten that Osama bin Laden initially condemned Saddam Hussein as well as the autocracy of his own Saudi Arabia. Given our commitment to combating terrorism, this makes almost incomprehensible our 2003 attack on Iraq as well as the proposed attack on Syria. For the Syrian rebels include not only freedom fighters, but also jihadists and criminals (in what proportions is a matter of dispute) of precisely the sort who would likely thwart any attempt to create a free and democratic Syria.
But the central issue is the moral one. The deaths of Syrian citizens by chemical weapons is tragic, as is the deaths of the 100,000 who have already been killed and the plight of the 6 million refugees and displaced persons created by the war. Both sides have committed atrocities; whether on the same scale, no one knows for certain. What is certain is that our killing still more people and possibly igniting a regional conflagration is not the solution.
Perhaps the Russian proposal will be accepted, and Syria will transfer control of its chemical weapons. But even if an immediate attack is averted, Bashar al-Assad would still remain in power, and the U.S. would still back the rebels. Accordingly, the U.S. seems bent on maintaining its military threat, as though Cruise missiles and B-52 bombers were rational devices by which to try to send a message to anyone.
We could be supporting the Syrian Non-Violence Movement rather than supplying the rebels in their quest for a violent takeover. That could send a message that we have a genuine regard for all the Syrian people and would be a form of humanitarian intervention worth supporting.
Holmes is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy.