7 April 2017–First thoughts on the US Attack on Syria   Leave a comment

US President Trump justified his attack on the Syrian air base yesterday on two grounds.  The first was a moral justification:

“On Tuesday, Syria launched a horrific chemical attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of hopeless men, women, and children.

It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror.”

The second was based on the American national interest:

“It was in the vital national security interest of the US to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons.

There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN security council.”

Both justifications seem compelling, but we need to withhold judgment until we see how the matter unfolds. But there is a context to these statements that needs to be appreciated.

First, the Sarin attack in Idlib was clearly an atrocity and a global response to that atrocity was imperative.  The news is reporting that President Trump informed various allies and the Russians about the strike beforehand, but we do not know to what extent he received replies that indicated support for an attack.  The timing of the US response suggests that it was a unilateral act.  I suspect it would have been far better if US allies had had a chance to demonstrate solid support for that specific military attack, as opposed to having little alternative but to agree that the chemical attack demanded a response.

Second, the invocation of the position of the UN Security Council would have been far stronger if the Security Council had had a chance to vote to authorize the use of military force.  Unquestionably, the Russians and the Chinese would have vetoed such a resolution.  But in so doing, both states would have isolated themselves from global public opinion and international law in a way that would have diminished the force of the vetoes and in that sense legitimated a coordinated response by other countries.  I would also parenthetically note that invoking the UN after submitting a budget guideline that reduced US funding for the UN is hypocritical.

Third, identifying the Sarin attack as the single reason for a dramatic change in policy (see an earlier post from 5 April) is somewhat difficult to accept given that almost 300,000 people have already died in the conflict.  Admittedly, Sarin gas is a singularly vicious way to die. But it is problematic to understand the moral framework that allows the earlier inaction of the US to be justified when the deaths of around 60 civilians is so decisive.

Fourth, everything really depends on how the politics unfold.  If it turns out that this is a single strike that does not lead to an escalation of the war, then it is probably justifiable in terms of a message about the impermissible use of chemical weapons.  That message should be heeded by all states in the world.  But if the strike leads to a wider war, then more innocents will die.  The important thing to remember is that all wars are political disputes and that military action is only a way of expressing a calculation of the benefits of holding a particular position.  If defending innocents were the highest priority of states, then, in all likelihood, wars would never be fought.

Posted April 7, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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