Last week, the US made its boldest statement yet regarding the possibility of American military invention in Syria, following the announcement of Secretary of State, John Kerry, that it was " undeniable" that chemical weapons were used against civilians. "Our sense of humanity is offended, not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up," said Kerry early last week. Announcing his support of a limited American military strike to “deter” Assad, President Obama will seek approval from a divided Congress on the issue in early September.
While the British Parliament recently defeated Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to take military action in Syria, former Prime Minister Tony Blair decisively espoused a military solution. Writing in The Times last week, Blair asserted that western powers must “understand the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work”, counseling decision makers to protect Syrians from state brutality and “affiliates of al-Qaida”.
While some may take courage from Kerry’s and Blair’s usage of such strong, unequivocal language, one can't help but feel that these words ring hollow after the passing of so much time and so many deaths. Within the context of a conflict that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Syrians as of June 2013 and altered the fate of millions of others, both within Syria and abroad, one cannot help but feel unimpressed by these passionate words. Scores are killed in Syria every day by way of torture, execution, bombings, disease, and starvation - can chemical warfare truly inspire entirely new levels of indignation within the hearts and minds of those within the international community?
Ardent supporters of military intervention cite the unique purpose behind chemical warfare to justify action: such weapons are not merely meant to stop attacks, but cause serious physical and psychological symptoms in the short and long-term and target victims indiscriminately. Nevertheless, there are several more conventional weapons that bear the same characteristics, while writers such as John Glaser, John Mueller, and Nick Gillespie remain uncertain that chemical weapons necessarily inflict more suffering on their victims than conventional arms
Other proponents of military action assert the need to make an example of Assad to ensure that chemical weapons are not used again. Speaking to the British House of Lords last week, Lord Hill of Oareford declared the need to “send a message” to the international community about the use of chemical weapons to deter the ambitions of others to deploy such weapons.
Yet despite the presence of clear international laws forbidding the use of chemical weapons since the end of World War I, red lines have been crossed more than once in the past fifty years, as standard codes of conduct are set aside subjectively to serve the “national interest”. Indeed, the CIA and the Reagan administration did not bat an eyelash to the extended use of chemical weapons by Iraq in the 1980s, both in its war against Iran and in its quest to subdue restive populations at home. According to Foreign Policy, recently declassified materials demonstrate that senior US officials routinely received information about the severity of attacks, but did not seek to restrain or punish Iraq due to the Reagan administration’s desire to see Iraq emerge victorious in the Iran-Iraq war, “whatever the cost”. In short, the new documents are “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.”
More recently, to punish Saddam Hussein for his alleged possession of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, US forces reportedly dropped approximately 500 Mark 77 incendiary bombs on Iraq over the duration of the first and second Gulf War, a type of bomb that equates to the modern day version of napalm. The Mark 77 firebombs have a function “remarkably similar” to napalm, according to one Pentagon spokesman.
In the 2003 Iraq war, US forces also used white phosphorus, considered a chemical weapon when used directly against soldiers, to “flush out enemy fighters so that they could then be killed with high explosive rounds”, according to the US State department. In short, exactly where and when is the red line on chemical warfare drawn? In light of these memorable inconsistencies in the usage of chemical weapons, it is not altogether unsurprising that the perpetrators in Syria did not receive the memo.
And now, as the Syrian nation is reduced to rubble, its treasures destroyed, and its people scattered and broken to live as beggars in neighbouring nations, one might ask our decision makers-- What is real action? Does the answer to Syria's crisis and the general threat of chemical warfare lie in the unilateral might of western armies? What has western intervention brought in the past? Moreover, conventional intervention in the way of sending troops has been a consistently unpopular course of action in the western world with regards to the Syria conflict, leaving the likely solution to be a punitive military strike. If one sets aside the need to “send a message” to other aspiring chemical war makers while considering the British and American aversion to implementing policies intent on “regime change”, what good will a punitive military strike against the Assad regime do for the Syrian people, other than bringing more violence?
This line of logic brings us to a more pressing question- is a military response the correct response? Since July 2012, the death toll in Syria exploded from 19,000 deaths to over 100,000 casualties. These deaths are arguably the result of the rapid militarisation of the Syrian conflict, following the decision by western powers to arm the opposition. Will the addition of more weapons, more military strikes, and, depending on western commitments, more soldiers, stem the carnage? Furthermore, it is understood that the Assad regime maintains the upper hand militarily in the conflict- what will be the consequences of seemingly pushing the national army into a corner? Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to be bloodless.
Violence begets violence, and more violence is unlikely to bring this crisis to a timely and manageable conclusion. Comprehensive and inclusive diplomatic talks with the Assad regime, Iran, and a disillusioned Russia likely stand as the only viable solution. Other important steps include recalling the US Congress early to come to a consensus and promoting a timely delivery of the UN inspectors’ findings. But the international community cannot afford to stand at the sidelines for too long, deliberating over the use of the pen or the sword. For the longer it waits, the more it risks losing its own humanity in the process.