There are times when a punitive military strike can be justified, legitimate, proportionate, and effective. US Secretary of State John Kerry has described last week’s use of chemical weapons against the population of a Damascus suburb as a “moral obscenity.” He is of course right–the use of such weapons against civilians is a disgusting act and illegal under the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In response US, as well as allied aircraft and ships, are now being moved to the Eastern Mediterranean in preparation for a strike with a British air-base on Cyprus likely to be at the center of operations.
Would a punitive strike be justified? If clear evidence can be established that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack then there would be some grounds for a punitive strike. However, the UN Chemical Weapons Inspectors have as yet to conclude their investigation and British Foreign Secretary William Hague has suggested that the ‘crime scene’ will have been tampered with. US officials suggest that there is “little doubt” the Assad regime is behind the attack. Is that the case?
A friend of mine commanded a group charged with countering nuclear, biological, and chemical attack. He told me, “There are worrying anomalies, though it’s difficult to assess the occurrences from the limited amount of data that is coming through. There are some Sarin-like symptoms but survivors talking about burning eyes and feelings of suffocation do not square with Sarin. The classic symptoms of Sarin (GB) and other nerve agents are, at low doses, the “mother of all headaches”. He goes on, “The argument for this is reinforced by the evidence as far as I can see it that there wasn’t a lot of chemical released. Professionals would have achieved tighter concentrations and a higher death rate.” In other words the jury is still out as to just who is responsible.
Would a strike be legitimate? There is a difference in international law between legal and legitimate. However, given Russian and Chinese opposition it is clear that such a strike would not receive a UN mandate and in that event could therefore be deemed an illegal act under international law even if its proponents claimed it was legitimate given a breach of the CWC. The consequences would be profound. First, it would reinforce the belief in Beijing and Moscow that the West is a law unto itself. The UN would be further weakened making any co-ordinated action in future virtually impossible when the time comes (as it eventually will) to negotiate a settlement. Critically, it would allow the Assad regime to present itself as the victim.
Would such a strike be proportionate? If one assumes that a strike would use cruise missiles then the targets are likely to be the defense ministry, air defense command centers and other military facilities, including the three sites close to Damascus at which Syria’s chemical weapons are now concentrated. The Assad regime will know this and quite possibly start using human shields to protect such sites. If a Western punitive strike ended up killing Syrian civilians then it could not be said to be proportionate. Such a strike may soften Syria’s air defenses up in preparation for a ‘no fly zone’ but almost certainly the Russians would move to offset Assad’s losses.
Would such a strike be effective? To be effective such a strike would need to change the balance of power in the Syrian struggle. Even if Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons attacks the limited use of a few cruise missiles is unlikely to deter a clearly desperate regime. Indeed, it may make it harder to establish contact with those in the regime open to a possible dialogue. In other words making the rubble bounce – which would in effect be the consequence of such an action – would take Syria no closer to peace.
In such a conflict clarity of objective and method is vital. Tony Blair has called for “intervention” which is very different to a punitive strike and would require a sustained air campaign and boots on the ground. After Iraq and Afghanistan that is not going to happen.
Respected former US diplomat Ryan Crocker has said the US and its allies should instead “contain the fire”. He is right. It is not punitive strikes that are needed but the re-establishment of credible US and allied influence in both the conflict and the wider Middle East region. Only then can the US and its allies hope to bring together those on both sides that a) might offer a possible political way forward; and b) ensure extremists do not gain power. That means support for the states that border Syria, particularly Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey to both prevent spill-over and to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of Syrian refugees. Above all a new political strategy is needed.
Therefore, it is hard to see analytically how a punitive strike right now could be demonstrably justifiable, proportionate, legitimate but above all effective. Indeed, there is little evidence that a punitive strike now would further policy, strategy, or the well-being of the Syrian people.
Sadly, Washington is fast backing itself into a corner with any retreat from action a humiliating climb-down which could further undermine America’s already brittle Middle East strategy. However, venting political frustration would be little more than a shot in the dark and that does not constitute sound leadership.
Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.