Global Norms and the National Interest Square Off in Syria

President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas stated in a brief tweet recently that “if #Syria used CW, US should mount punative retaliation, to deter new attacks & reinforce global norm vs any WMD use.”

The Assad state, having accomplished a string of victories in Qusair and Homs with the aid of it’s allies Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia is now taking aim at the legitimacy of global norms, specifically that the use of chemical weapons is an unacceptable provocation, especially when used against civilians.  However, this is not the first provocation, so why is this time different?

Back then, the use of the chemical weapons was sporadic, unprofessional and undeadly. It was of sorts a declaration of intent. Later, according to Western intelligence agencies, Assad pulled a few make-believe and hold-me-back stunts when his troops mounted chemical warheads on missiles so that this action would be picked up by American surveillance satellites. He wanted to relay a message and make sure it reached the desired destination. The Syrian regime will fight tooth and nail “to the last drop of blood,” and Assad has no intention of giving up.

The Obama administration was right to not overreact to the sporadic stunts of the past few years. Doing so would have hampered the U.S.’s abilities to find a clear consensus among UN states and the Arab League to engage in military strikes today. In other words, they were right to play the long game. The legitimacy of such strikes are stronger today then ever before, though popular sentiment in the U.S. remains little changed. Russia and Iran, for all their bluster, are in a clearly dangerous position in supporting Assad’s use of chemical weapons. They may not say so explicitly, but ultimately, and the White House should make this clear in future statements, the blame is as much with Russia and Iran as it is with Assad. They own the actions of the Assad regime by tying themselves so unequivocally to it. Without Assad’s allies giving him their own red lines, like the Chinese have been known to do so recently with North Korean provocations, his regimes confidence has outrun it’s actual capacity to effect conditions on the ground.

Global norms, if they are to be credible, must be underwritten by real power. International law, legalism, is only as strong as those who safeguard it. The global norms being referenced in Syria’s case are of good motives. Since WWI mustard gas attacks, the west has been horrified of chemical weapon use (though that doesn’t mean we’ve always engaged in direct action to stop it i.e. Iraq). Unfortunately, “good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies; they do not guarantor the moral goodness and political success of the policies they inspire” (Morgenthau, Politics among nations).

The intention to stop Assad’s CW strikes are good, but that does not mean the outcome of our next moves will be good policy – will be in the national interest. What is a superpower to do when the global norms they helped to create and are meant to underwrite may go contrary to their own interests? The problems the U.S. could face by acting in Syria can’t be counted on two hands. By engaging militarily within territorial lines we never had much influence, and indeed don’t have many interests in, the U.S. may be setting itself up for overseeing the responsibility of conducting Syria though this civil war. The original sin was probably creating the red line in the first place, but we can only deal with events as they currently exist, not as we wish they existed. Inaction is no longer an option.

If we don’t act, events that unfold are likely to be blamed on inaction. If we do act, events that unfold are likely to be blamed on our actions. The events that unfold aren’t like to be any good in either scenario. By not acting we do blow up that illusive thing called credibility – it may not have much effect in Syria, but when it comes time to negotiate seriously with Iran on the subject of it’s nuclear program, they’re going to remember what America chose to do in response to this WMD event. Iran could take inaction for weakness, and miscalculate its actions in the future, leading to a real collision with the U.S. and Israeli military.

The only path for the U.S. then is to devise a proportional response to Assad’s actions. Letting him go unpunished and overconfident will only lead to further provocations in the future, by Iran and Russia as well. Russia can no longer play arbiter of international law. The U.S. backed by funds and support from NATO nations, U.N. nations, and most importantly the Arab league must respond. We don’t want to own the conflict, but by striking Assad’s chemical weapons AS WELL AS striking recent gains he’s made on the battlefield, can the U.S. be in a position in the future to negotiate seriously with Iran (and Syria, though I doubt a diplomatic solution is possible). By turning Assad’s battlefield gains back by 6 months, we send a message that his provocations are no longer acceptable and the U.S. will act to safeguard its power.

Before this provocation, I believed the stalemate in Syria could have inspired Iran, a nation bleeding resources and regional popularity to the conflict, to come to the table on a nuclear deal if we showed we were serious about their national interests in Syria. But now, not acting in a proportional manner would give Iran the impression we have no will to be serious actors on any middle east issue.

4 thoughts on “Global Norms and the National Interest Square Off in Syria

  1. ” a proportional military response that targets the regimes chemical weapon units and limited battlefield infrastructure isn’t aimed at regime change”

    I suppose “targets” is the key word here. It appears to me that all Assad has is limited battlefield infrastructure, or he wouldn’t be using chemical weapons in the first place. So targeting is going to be the key.

    I just have to say that when Hagel became Secretary of Defence, unless I was completely mistaken, there was an unspoken commitment to not leave the troops to their own devices, like Rumsfeld did, and not engage a war that we refuse or unable to win, like with Gates.

    So while I would like to believe that we can “target” chemical weapons and destroy “limited battlefield infrastructure” and not break this unspoken commitment, I have my doubts,

    If our targeting is wrong and we bring Assad down, despite his confidence and Russia’s ability in arbitrating international law, there will be regime change with or without the US commitment. I am just saying that unless we are committed we will be fighting another two wars on another two fronts.

    I believe fighting two wars (both wars to which we are not committed to win and basically leaving the troops to their own devices on two different fronts again) will break this unspoken commitment Hagel has with his troops, and it will mean more than just getting another Secretary of Defence.

    Hagel says they are ready, but then he is ready for what? A projected war moving across Syria and Iraq; involving Russia, Turkey, and Israel; and ending in Asia?

    Yes, I think “targeting” is a very key word.

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  2. “…US should mount pun[i]tive retaliation, to deter new attacks & reinforce global norm vs any WMD use.”

    I don’t know. If it’s down to using chemical weapons, what punitive retaliation is the U.S. going to launch that won’t bring down the regime, increase collateral damage, or increase the resources brought into the area by supporters of the Assad regime?

    To me punitive means escalation, and what Syria needs is an end, an end that sees Russia, Turkey, and Israel in the focus.

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    • I would say that a proportional military response that targets the regimes chemical weapon units and limited battlefield infrastructure isn’t aimed at regime change, in fact White House press secretary Jay Carney has explicitly stated the U.S. is not interested in bringing down the Assad government but in changing future calculations of Assad and his allies. A proportional response is about creating the conditions for a political settlement and safeguarding U.S. credibility for future negotiations, whether that be with the Syrian Arab Republic or the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even president Rouhani has stated CW’s should not be tolerated (because Iran was once gassed to, by Iraq). Iran and even more so, Russia, are already all-in for Assad, Iran with training and financial credit, and Russia with weapons and financial credit (billions, despite their ailing economy, how long can they sustain propping up Assad if the costs increase?) There can’t be an end if Assad feels this confident and Russia is arbitrating international law.

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