The primary goals of American foreign policy is to make our citizens, friends and allies secure and to make our adversaries think twice. There are moments in history when well-timed, well-placed military action will have the effect of causing fear — and moments that, if allowed to pass by, ensure the opposite. President Barack Obama’s failure to uphold the international conventions against chemical weapons worked against American interests in what is perhaps the ugliest battlefield of the 21st century. President Donald Trump’s decision to attack the Syria’s Al-Shayrat Military Airbase from which the Assad regime launched chemical attacks in 2017 was a welcome reversal, though with limited results.
The illegitimacy of chemical weapons use is one of the few points of international consensus in war fighting. The first treaty against it is more than 115 years old – the Hague Declaration of 1899, which was followed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the 1925 Geneva Protocol.
But the Bashar Assad regime in Syria — with the active support of Russia — has again been using chlorine barrel bombs against the 400,000 hostage civilians of Ghouta. Having failed to pass a Security Council resolution to sanction Syria (Russia and China vetoed), the United Nations Security Council succeeded in passing a unanimous resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. Less than 24 hours later, there were new reports of chemical raids killing hundreds.
Ambassador Kelley Currie, U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs at the UN, addressed the UN Security Council. “The only way to change the situation on the ground is for all of us to speak the truth about what is happening. These past 4 days should show us that when it comes to demanding a ceasefire, it’s not enough to say ‘all parties’ must commit to ceasefire.”
With all due respect to Amb. Currie, “speaking the truth” won’t change the situation on the ground. Syria has to be made to pay. Since the UN has no enforcement capabilities — and no one should want it to — the world’s only superpower has to consider undertaking to punish the violator and uphold the consensus.
This is not a call for the U.S. to enter the Syrian civil war or effect regime change, both of which have been rightly rejected by President Trump as outside the scope of our interests in Syria.
The propriety of punishing the Assad regime can be measured against the 8-point “Powell Doctrine,” devised by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. It was General Powell’s determination to have the American government not rush headlong into the deployment of our forces, and so the questions encourage hesitation. They are also not fully appropriate because President Trump would not be committing forces. But they are a reminder of the difference between a war for “regime change” and a singular event, the repetition of which depends on the Syrian dictator and his allies.
- Is a vital national security interest threatened? Yes. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after the March 2017 chemical raid, “As Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response… from the international community, he, in effect, is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which may then be adopted by others. Therefore, it’s important that some action be taken…”
- Do we have a clear attainable objective? Yes, two: To establish the principle that violations will be punished and to prevent the use of the Syrian Air Force in such activities again.
- Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? This question is disingenuous; risks and costs can never be fully accounted for. But yes.
- Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted? Yes, in the execution of the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement for the destruction of Syria’s chemical capability, and in the UN Security Council resolutions Russia vetoed.
- Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? Yes. There is no necessary American military follow up.
- Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? Another disingenuous question. But yes again – it is likely that the responses of Syria, Russia and Iran were considered, as well as the likely impact on North Korean and Chinese behavior.
- Is the action supported by the American people? Historically, the American people have supported military action explained by the president in terms of the points above. President Trump will have to make his case.
- Do we have genuine broad international support? UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has said of a response against Syria, “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
Appropriate targets for the United States would be a) the air base from which the chemical sorties were flown; or b) any air base; or c) the long-range artillery that is an effective means of CW distribution; or d) the military HQ from which such sorties are ordered.
The targets should be accompanied by a warning: The Syrian Ministry of Defense is next, if necessary. Your call.