KEADY: A slap on the wrist
The U.S. response to chemical weapon attacks in Syria will not end the war any faster
In a speech about the Syrian civil war, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Bashar al-Assad regime is now “undeniable.” The Obama administration has begun “weighing a military strike” in the country. It appears that this strike will consist of firing cruise missiles from the Mediterranean at suspected chemical weapons laboratories within Syria.
The thought of an intervention by the West against the Assad government may conjure up thoughts of a swift defeat of the dictator, similar to the situation in Libya. The conflict in Syria, however, demands a more nuanced assessment. Even if one assumes an external military response provoked by a chemical-weapons attack will help the Syrian rebels, it is not a strategic move for changing the conflict in favor of the rebels and ending the war.
In a column this past March, I stressed the importance of the United States remaining uninvolved in the conflict, excluding the instance of a verified chemical attack. My viewpoint stemmed from the thought that a military intervention would only amplify the troubling violence of the conflict, as opposed to solving it.
Evidence for chemical attacks, however, has surfaced. Videos of victims on social media websites, interviews with Syrian doctors and the fact that the Syrian government suspiciously delayed a U.N. investigation of an alleged chemical weapons site, and then shelled it before investigators were allowed in, is unquestionably worrying. It seems, at least in the eyes of the American government, the time for action has come. The scope of this action, however, will not be enough to change the situation on the ground. Any hopes that the United States’ response to chemical weapon attacks will help put an end to the more troubling problem—the conflict itself—should be reconsidered.
First, the proposed use of cruise missiles would not adequately destroy all of the Syrian government’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. One expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies claimed “even the most successful cruise missile strikes would not destroy Syria’s holdings,” and that the only “credible” option for destroying these weapons would be through “a massive air campaign” with “presence on the ground.” Both of these options, at least in the meantime, are not being discussed. Without them, it seems the military action against the Assad regime will largely be for show, rather than defeat.
The Obama administration’s plan surrounding the use of cruise missiles is more indicative of the United States’ (as well as many other nations’) moral standpoint on the use of chemical weapons than of its willingness to help the fractured rebel forces. In fact, these missile strikes could serve to draw more combatants into the fight. An American military demonstration may serve to delegitimize the rebellion as being aided by foreign meddlers in the eyes of anti-American moderates, whose opinions may harden following this kind of action.
The second reason is that the U.S. destruction of chemical weapons will not bring about the end of fighting is that whether or not these weapons are in use, the conflict in Syria is still extremely bloody. Targeting chemical weapons caches only removes the most horrifying weapons from the fight. With an estimated 120,000 dead and more than 200,000 injured before the chemical attacks surfaced, these precisely targeted strikes would not substantively diminish the conflict’s potential for violence.
What’s more, the use of chemical weapons, by nature, has escalated the scale of the violence in the war. Thus we may see fighting increase in frequency and brutality as a means of justification by those affected by these weapons, regardless of whether or not the weapons are destroyed.
The final reason the United States’ proposed plan will not put the civil war on a track for conclusion is that there is no internationally favored figure for Assad’s replacement. The political crisis resulting from Assad’s military removal at the time being could plunge Syria into more violence, as competition for power would emerge. Fearing this consequence, other nations that are siding with the rebels will refuse to intervene forcefully enough to alter the current stalemate until such a leader emerges, if at all. In this light, it is clear that the United States’ response will be less about aiding rebel forces towards victory, and more about reprimanding the Assad regime.
I do not mean for these reasons to come off as cynical. While the chances of the violence in Syria being brought to an end with a solution fair to all Syrians seem distant, they are not gone. Perhaps a retaliation to chemical-weapons use on the part of the U.S. will not end the war, but it may put it in a new context: one rooted in a refusal to allow the use of some of the most heinous weapons. At the very least, this is something to hope for.
Walter Keady is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily.