The case against attacking Syria

By Ask Foldspang Neve

At the moment of this writing, American, British and French warships have already been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean in large numbers. So have a record number of Russian vessels, monitoring the situation and giving the Russian leadership the widest range of options to act.

Last Monday, when US Secretary of State John Kerry gave his casus belli speech, which was later reinforced by the vice-president, and then the President himself, it was apparently preceded by the activation of his diplomatic phone tree. Suddenly, the leaders of all of the most interventionist Western states suddenly put a strike on Syria on their respective agendas. While it is not noteworthy in itself that the European states that live under American military protection are also keen to follow the American lead, it was surprising how the rather heterogeneous group of leaders all made almost synchronic and similarly worded statements to their public audiences.

None of these leaders thought that there was much reason to deliberate the newly inspired policy. Most must have hoped that the grizzly televised images of hapless Syrians killed by chemical weapons were enough of an argument. However, Kerry’s speech obviously not only covered what everybody believes: that using chemical weapons is a crime and a moral offense. It also accused the Syrian leader Bashar Assad of ordering the act, stating that the troubled dictator had incriminated himself by not allowing the UN inspector team onto the site  of crime until four days had passed and important evidence of the crime allegedly had been destroyed  afterwards.

Nato attacks on Libya. Source: Human Rights Watch

There is no right way to kill the innocent. Scene from Libya after a NATO airstrike, 2011 (Source: Human Rights Watch).

Apart from the fact that such evidence cannot easily be destroyed and will last for years, this is all well and good. However, following the same logic, it is hard not to argue that it is equally incriminating that the American policy right now is to defy the stated UN wish to carry out the inspections to the end. In other words, it cannot be true that Assad is deemed guilty because he delays the access of the inspectors, and that we are then not willing to wait the few days it would take the same inspectors to carry out their investigation. If the military option is really based on punishing whoever is guilty of using chemical weapons, surely it must be important to know who that was? And surely, if such proof really existed in any shape apart from that prior to the attack on Iraq, it would have been presented to the public to galvanize us into demand for action?

As of the time of publication, we simply do not know who committed these crimes. Just declaring that the culprit is the leader we like the least, and who is an ally of a prime geopolitical challenger, does not count for evidence; on the contrary, coming to that conclusion should lead to suspicion of any such evidence. Interventionists must carry the burden of proof; the default cannot be that missiles are fired or troops are deployed.

Moreover, the British concern for consulting the Security Council is an obvious sham. Since the war in Syria has important proxy aspects to it,  the Russians would never allow a military intervention against the Syrian regime, much less so before actual evidence of Assad’s guilt has been presented. After what Russia’s policy establishment consider a blunder on Libya, this defensive stance is only further legitimized internally. The hasty British Security Council consultation, which would have been technically much more appropriate after the verdict of the UN experts team had been made public, was thus a diplomatic gambit aimed at securing two things: Showing to the British public that Brits care about international law; and at the same time, that the United Nations is a failing institution incapable of solving real problems due to averse Russian and Chinese reactions.

There are, at least, two lessons we could have learned from the war we started in Iraq. Firstly, that having good reasons to believe that a dictator stockpiles or uses chemical weapons is not a good enough reason to actually go to war. Intelligence reports might be wrong from the beginning, or they might be used in biased or even knowingly wrongful manners by the leaders receiving it. The latter, of course, was what neoconservative politicians and thinkers did as a prelude to invading Iraq. So far, no clear evidence of Assad’s guilt worthy of public scrutiny has been displayed to the public. That should be a bare minimum before war is declared.

For all we know at the moment, the atrocities could have been committed by a rogue general, by one of the many jihadist rebel groups who do not refrain from beheading Syrian Christians and using child soldiers, or by a faction of the increasingly embattled and desperate Syrian National Council trying to force the West to intervene on its behalf. What we do know is that Assad would have very little incentive to use the chemical weapons now that he looks like he could be winning the conflict by traditional means. Given that president Obama bound himself politically to respond if chemical weapons were in fact employed, it must have seemed pretty obvious to the politically savvy Syrian strongman that the Americans would feel a need to respond to any such action.

Secondly, there is very little that we can hope to achieve by military intervention, even assuming that we knew Assad to be the perpetrator. As the New Yorker’s George Packer appropriately put it, we all ‘want to pound the shit out of him’ (if not for the chemical attacks, then for his blatant disregard for human lives in general), but at the same time, ‘firing cruise missiles at Damascus’ prevents nothing about the tragedy going on in Syria. As we should have realized about dictators by now, they have a sword hanging over their heads. This is also why they cannot step down; their very rule is also the only guarantee of their continued safety, and that of their families. So as Packer puts it, Assad is ‘a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.’

What we do know from interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that military action short of permanent conquest and possible colonization (which can work if our desire is to create liberal institutions) is rather futile. Those, of course, would require us to compromise with our morals on an unprecedented scale, to mobilize a war effort much greater than those mobilized for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for us to stay in the subdued country indefinitely, none of which seem appealing to Western voters or leaders. With such concepts out of vogue, euphemisms abound. The ‘military intervention’ is a favorite. Changing the term we use for a phenomenon does not change the phenomenon underneath, however: a war is still a war, and all war is terrible.  Like in Libya, the scenario most similar to the present, the wrong people always get killed. Western missiles hitting Damascus, like those hitting Tripoli, will inevitably slay innocent Syrians, and if their deaths do not even have a realistic chance of changing the situation in Syria for the better or affecting the future calculations of cornered autocrats, then their blood will be on our hands.

Ask Foldspang Neve

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on politics and religion from sociological and political science perspectives.