The rationale for an American-led attack on Syria is mostly expressed as follows:
–America’s credibility is at stake after Obama ‘red line’ was crossed by launching a large-scale lethal chemical weapons attack; doing nothing in response would undermine U.S. global leadership;
–America’s credibility makes indispensable and irreplaceable contributions to world order, and should not jeopardized by continued passivity in relation to the criminal conduct of the Assad regime; inaction has been tried for the past two years and failed miserably [not clearly tried—Hilary Clinton was avowed early supporter of rebel cause, including arms supplies; recent reports indicate American led ‘special forces operations’ being conducted to bolster anti-Assad struggle];
–a punitive strike will deter future uses of chemical weapons by Syria and others, teaching Assad and other leaders that serious adverse consequences follow upon a failure to heed warnings posted by an American president in the form of ‘red lines;’
–even if the attack will not shift the balance in Syria back to the insurgent forces it will restore their political will to persist in the struggle for an eventual political victory over Assad and operate to offset their recently weakened position;
–it is possible that the attack will unexpectedly enhance prospects for a diplomatic compromise, allowing a reconvening of the U.S.-Russia chaired Geneva diplomatic conference, which is the preferred forum for promoting transition to a post-Assad Syria.
Why is this rationale insufficient?
–it does not take account of the fact that a punitive attack of the kind evidently being planned by Washington lacks any foundation in international law as it is neither undertaken in self-defense, nor after authorization by the UN Security Council, nor in a manner that can be justified as humanitarian intervention (in fact, innocent Syrian civilians are almost certain to loom large among the casualties);
–it presupposes that the U.S. Government rightfully exercises police powers on the global stage, and by unilateral (or ‘coalition of the willing’) decision, can give legitimacy to an other unlawful undertaking; it may be that the United States remains the dominant hard power political actor in the region and world, but its war making since Vietnam is inconsistent with the global public good, causing massive suffering and widespread devastation; international law and the UNSC are preferable sources of global police power than is reliance on the discretion and leadership of the United States at this stage of world history even if this results in occasional paralysis as evidenced by the UN’s failure to produce a consensus on how to end the war in Syria;
–U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama has similarities to that of George W. Bush in relation to international law, despite differences in rhetoric and style: Obama evades the constraints of international law by the practice of ‘reverential interpretations,’ while Bush defied as matter of national self-assertion and the meta-norms of grand strategy; as a result Obama comes off as a hypocrite while Bush as an outlaw or cowboy; in an ideal form of global law both would be held accountable for their violations of international criminal law;
–the impacts of a punitive strike could generate harmful results: weakening diplomatic prospects; increasing spillover effects on Lebanon, Turkey, elsewhere; complicating relations with Iran and Russia; producing retaliatory responses that widen the combat zone; causing a worldwide rise in anti-Americanism.
There is one conceptual issue that deserves further attention. In the aftermath of the Kosovo NATO War of 1999 there was developed by the Independent International Commission the argument that the military attack was ‘illegal but legitimate.’ The argument made at the time was that the obstacles to a lawful use of force could not be overcome because the use of force was non-defensive and not authorized by the Security Council. The use of force was evaluated as legitimate because of compelling moral reasons (imminent threat of humanitarian catastrophe; regional European consensus; overwhelming Kosovar political consensus—except small Serbian minority) relating to self-determination; Serb record of criminality in Bosnia and Kosovo) coupled with considerations of political feasibility (NATO capabilities and political will; a clear and attainable objective—withdrawal of Serb administrative and political control—that was achieved). Such claims were also subject to harsh criticism as exhibiting double standards (why not Palestine?) and a display of what Noam Chomsky dubbed as ‘military humanism.’
None of these Kosovo elements are present in relation to Syria: it is manifestly unlawful and also illegitimate (the attack will harm innocent Syrians without achieving proportionate political ends benefitting their wellbeing; the principal justifications for using force relate to geopolitical concerns such as ‘credibility,’ ‘deterrence,’ and ‘U.S. leadership.’ [For an intelligent counter-argument contending that an attack on Syria at this time would be ‘illegal but legitimate,’ see Ian Hurd, “Bomb Syria, Even if it is Illegal,” NY Times, August 27, 2013; also “Saving Syria, International Law is not the answer,” Aljazeera, August 27, 2013]
This is an excerpt from a blog by Richard Falk
Richard Falk is Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and Senior Vice President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.