March 24, 2020
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Bombs fell in the night. Nothing new. But these bombs contained chemical weapons, killing hundreds of Syrians, including women and children. The August 21 chemical attack has prompted the U.S. to consider military action in a civil war raging since 2011 between the Bashar Assad regime and opposition forces.
To help shed light on the conflict, Along Middle Path spoke with Thomas Karako, director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy and assistant professor of political science. Karako is an expert on U.S. defense policy.
AMP: Why has the use of chemical weapons prompted President Obama to consider military action against Syria?
TK: Using chemical weapons against one’s own population carries a heavy stigma, and the White House has spoken to a kind of imperative to punish and deter such actions. But those who died from chemical agents represent merely 1 percent of those that Assad’s forces are believed to have killed. Although Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, using indiscriminate weapons against noncombatants is also a violation of the laws of war. Guilt also lies with Russia and China for arming Assad and running diplomatic interference for him.
It is unfortunate that the U.S. has until now done so little. Last year, a Syrian woman was widely quoted as telling Americans, "We will not forget that you have forgotten us."
Although these horrible events prompted a change in the U.S. posture, the administration’s policy goals remain unclear: What is our purpose? Is it to punish the chemical weapons attack? To establish an international norm? To prevent further deaths? To remove Assad from power? Whatever the goal, will military strikes accomplish it?
AMP: In terms of international law, is it legal to take military action?
TK: The U.N. Charter prohibits threatening or using force, except in self-defense or when authorized by the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. faces no direct threat, but some form of self-defense justification might be invoked on behalf of the opposition, which the U.S. in December recognized as the legitimate representatives of Syria.
A third way of justifying strikes might be to claim that a "responsibility to protect" trumps the hard shell of sovereign authority asserted by Syria to manage its own internal affairs. But the implications of officially embracing such a novel interpretation would be highly uncertain.
It seems more likely that the Obama administration will follow the Kosovo precedent. Action was taken for humanitarian ends, but, again, thanks to Russia, without U.N. authorization. The Clinton administration declined to articulate an international legal basis. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo, for example, concluded that NATO action there was "illegal but legitimate."
AMP: Does Congress need to authorize a U.S. attack on Syria?
TK: Last week, President Obama asserted that he has "the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization." The issue here is the separation of powers and the constitutional authority to make war. The president has robust authority to use force independently of Congress, but even partisans of presidential power concede there must be some specific link to national security. As then-Senator Obama noted in 2007, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."
Whereas the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were authorized by Congress, those in Kosovo and Libya were not. To justify unilateral action in Libya, for example, the administration crafted an imaginative legal opinion that U.S. activities were of sufficiently low intensity so as not to constitute “hostilities” or require compliance with the War Powers Act.
Taking on the Syrian military will be a much more robust undertaking than Libya, so congressional support may be necessary to sustain the operation. Any military operation would also be expensive, at a time of budget cuts and sequestration of the defense budget. So if Congress decides to authorize military action, it will also need to pay for it, probably as a supplemental appropriation.
AMP: How might involvement in Syria affect national security?
TK: The Assad regime is an ally of Russia, no friend to the West, a longtime state sponsor of terrorism, and a continuing thorn in the side of regional allies. Assad’s recent atrocities may provide a rare opportunity to substantially degrade the Syrian military.
The U.S. has been supporting the Syrian opposition on a very limited basis. According to CNN, these efforts included covert transfers of Libyan arms to Syrian rebels. But these efforts have been wholly insufficient.
What it would take to degrade the Syrian military is substantial. U.S. cruise missile strikes to eliminate Syrian anti-aircraft and ballistic missiles will not be enough. Extended bombing sorties from the air would need to follow—but then what? Air power alone will not necessarily end the killing, which has mostly been on the ground.
A diplomatic deficit makes things harder. The White House has less of a multilateral coalition than the 2003 Iraq war, with the most conspicuous absence being Great Britain. The cost of unilateralism is measured in military might as well as reputation.
If inaction in Syria signals weakness to Assad’s allies in Iran, a display of Tomahawk missiles pounding sand might send the same signal. If the military operation is insufficient to end Assad’s persecution, does it satisfy the humanitarian impulse?
The administration has said that any action would be brief, limited, and not aimed at changing the regime, apparently backtracking from a 2011 statement that Assad must go. Whether or not the mission will be sufficiently robust to seriously degrade Assad’s war-making capability, however, will affect both its security and humanitarian goals. Too little, and it might be better to do nothing. As former CENTCOM commander James Mattis remarked in July, "We have no moral obligation to do the impossible.”
It may well make good policy sense to take action against Syria, but saving face is an insufficient reason to go to war. Any response must be part of an explainable strategy. For now, the basic question is still unanswered: what, exactly, are we trying to accomplish?
Students and faculty discuss Syria and U.S. involvement.
U.S. involvement in Syria will be addressed in a panel discussion on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 11:10 a.m. in Olin Auditorium. The panel includes Jon Green '14, political science major; Sarah Kahwash '14, economics and modern languages and literatures major; Thomas Karako, assistant professor of political science and the director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy;and Jennifer Nichols, assistant professor of Arabic Studies.
Below is a video recap of last year's Center for the Study of American Democracy on-campus conference "Should America Promote Democracy Abroad?"