As the world waits with bated breath to see how the US Congress will vote on military intervention in Syria, the good folks at Chatham House called on their contacts in the foreign policy brain trust to give their considered opinions on the options, the likely outcomes, and the potential unintended consequences of such action. The following is a summary of those opinions, which I share here in an effort to present an informed conversation that, in my view, was a welcome departure from the traditional media narrative on Syria, which I have found distressingly histrionic – the exceptions being the excellent reporting done by a select few brave journalists who have been traveling in and out of the country for the last 2+ years. On the whole, I found the event to be extremely well done, and gave me some hope that the profound suffering of the Syrian people will soon begin to ebb. Please note that by memorializing the views of the panelists I am not necessarily endorsing them.
The first panelist, Dr James D Boys of Kings College London, addressed the Obama administration’s fraught Syria policy. Essentially, Dr Boys opined that Obama has ‘boxed himself into a corner’ as a result of his rhetoric, particularly with respect to the now-infamous ‘red line’ pronouncement. He thought it possible that the policies of Obama’s advisors, including newly-appointed UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Secretary of State John Kerry, have eclipsed Obama’s own viewpoint, but whether or not this is the case, Obama has now taken a ‘cynical’ punt by passing the question to Congress. Dr Boys cited poll results indicating that public opinion in favor of military intervention is dismal, at only 9% in support and 60% firmly opposed, compared to the 47% who were in favour of intervention in Libya. In the face of those numbers, and with a Congress determined to fight him tooth and nail on nearly everything, it is an open question whether Obama genuinely wants to intervene militarily, especially in light of his campaign promises of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, Dr Boys dismissed the perceived negative impact of the recent House of Commons vote against intervention on the US-UK ‘special relationship’ as vastly overstated.
Dr Patricia Lewis of Chatham House delivered a wise and measured argument about why chemical weapons matter and how international action pursuant to due process is the best approach to dealing with them. She pointed out that the serious danger of chemical weapons is not just in their capacity for mass killing, but also in the horrific manner in which they kill and injure. They are unlawful for a reason, and by definition inhumane. She urged that we not allow ourselves to balk at credible evidence of their deployment because of lingering cynicism of Iraq, because to tacitly condone their use by failing to act would be uncivilized.
That said, she set forth a path which she believed would hold perpetrators accountable while meeting the demands of international due process. Syria is a member of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, and must be held to account for its violation, if proven. The crux of this approach thus becomes the report of the UN inspectors – if they deliver credible evidence of deployment of chemical weapons, UN Security Council resolution 620 (1988) indicates that the international community should immediately consider measures in line with the UN Charter. Even Russia would not bar this action, as Putin has agreed that if it is proved ‘beyond doubt’ that Assad used chemical weapons, he would cooperate with the rest of the Security Council. The Western position is thus strengthened by waiting for the results of the inspectors’ report. However, if any military action is taken before the UN report, the credibility of the domestic intelligence upon which it is based will be questioned because the legacy of Iraq looms large. For Dr Lewis (and many others), it is essential that we wait for the results of the UN inspectors before taking any military action. In the meantime, a meeting of the members of the 1925 Geneva Protocol could be called immediately to discuss other enforcement measures, and humanitarian aid ought to be increased.
Dr Alan George of Oxford was tasked with the ‘fool’s errand’ of trying to gauge the impact of the proposed ‘limited and narrow’ strikes. He gamely proposed the following potential consequences:
1) Assad swears revenge but does nothing, as he did following Israeli attacks in 2003, 2006, and 2007 (unlikely);
2) Assad retaliates directly (unlikely);
3) retaliation takes places remotely/by proxy, e.g. with Hezbollah striking Israel or instigating kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon;
4) Assad deploys additional chemical weapons (a political nightmare for Obama);
5) Iran takes some action (unlikely to be overt, though covert action is possible);
In terms of the impact of these proposed limited strikes, Dr George thought it unlikely to be significant. Assad has already had ample time to relocate military assets. If the strikes are truly ‘narrow’, they are unlikely to alter the balance of military advantage in the conflict. Indeed, they may provide a kind of political succour to the regime by exposing the double standards of the West as it continues to support Israel despite its nuclear capacity. They will do nothing to rehabilitate America’s badly damaged credibility in the region. Finally, in light of the regime’s clear disinclination to engage in negotiation with the opposition, limited strikes are unlikely to deter the regime from reaching a peaceful diplomatic settlement. Dr George’s conclusion was thus: if the proposed military action is unlikely to have any impact, then what is the point of it?
The final panelist was Sir Malcolm Rifkin MP, who spoke eloquently on the situation as a whole. First, he emphasized that Syria is totally different from Iraq, simply because Assad has admitted to possessing stocks of chemical weapons. Further, he identified specific aspects of the latest attacks that indicate the extreme likelihood that the weapons were deployed by the regime and not by anyone else, as some conspiracy theories have proposed. Most significantly, the sheer number of victims indicates that sophisticated infrastructure of the sort only available to the regime was used to deploy the weapons. ‘If it walks like a duck and it looks like a duck, it’s a duck.’
Sir Malcolm went on to clarify that the purpose of military intervention in this scenario is not to punish the regime for possessing chemical weapons, but to deter them from deploying them. Assad has no ethical compunction to refrain from doing so if he thinks he can get away with it, especially since it is to his great military advantage. It is up to the international community to stop this happening. Of course, ‘anyone with any sense’ wants the UN Security Council to be the forum for action, but Sir Malcolm urged the audience not to get hung up on an imperfect political body – if one country [Russia] can thwart genuine attempts to enforce international law, there is a fatal flaw in the system.
Finally, moderator Philippe Sands QC weighed in with the legal context. Under the UN Charter, there are two scenarios in which the use of force may be justified: self-defense (which no-one argues here) and UN Security Council Chapter VII action, which no one seems to believe is possible given Russia’s veto power. He also referred to the ’emergent’ doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which he supports as a basis for the use of force provided certain conditions are met. In this case, he framed the conditions as follows: 1) Are we persuaded that the Assad regime is the source of the chemical weapons, and 2) Are we persuaded that a proportionate use of force would dissuade further attacks?
The event closed with a casual poll of the audience, which appeared to come out in favour of authorizing military intervention following the release of a UN report which confirms to a reasonable degree of certainty that Assad did in fact use chemical weapons, even in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution.