By Lt.-Com. David Robinson
The thing that frightened me the most during the course of my military career was the possibility of facing a chemical weapons attack. I can think of no more repugnant weapon nor a worse fate than to die by them. So I have no sympathy whatsoever for Bashar al-Assad, where his recent use of chemical weapons against civilian populations in Syria is concerned — and for the sake of this article I’m going to accept the proposition that they were indeed used by the government of Syria.
At the same time, as a strong proponent of the United Nations and international law, I have a hard time accepting the American proposition that Syria’s recent use of chemical weapons demands a military response that is not backed by a resolution of the UN Security Council.
What is it about the reported sarin attack of August 21 that warrants an extraordinary response falling outside the norms of international law? Is it the sheer number of deaths involved — some 1,400? This number seems insufficient to explain the American plan to attack Syria.
Just weeks ago during the Black Wednesday Egyptian government crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo, a similar number of civilian citizens were killed by Egyptian soldiers. America didn’t threaten military action against Egypt, nor did it cut off its $1.3 billion a year in support for its allies in the Egyptian military. Thinking farther back, what about the Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994? America knew that genocide was taking place, but it stood on the international sidelines while more than half a million people were slaughtered.
Global horror over the Rwandan genocide gave rise to the new idea of a Responsibility to Protect in international relations.
Some have suggested the American threat of military action against Bashar al-Assad can be covered by this doctrine. But the Responsibility to Protect only covers intervention in the case of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity, and even then, the UN Security Council must authorize a military response. The August 21 sarin attack outside Damascus, deplorable though it was, does not seem to meet these criteria.
Is it the fact that chemical weapons were employed? Was this the red line that Bashar al-Assad crossed, and that warrants extraordinary reprisals? President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have striven to take the moral high road on this subject, suggesting that the use of such weapons is an evil that presents a real and pressing threat to the United States and its allies, and warrants a military response.
The United States is not above using weapons every bit as nasty as the sarin likely employed on August 21. It used napalm against Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, and employed napalm extensively against Vietnamese populations during the Vietnam War. During that war it also used Agent Orange, and caused over 100,000 deaths as a result.
But, you may say, those two weapons aren’t banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, while sarin gas is. And that is a good point.
During the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the Americans not only knew that Saddam Hussein was using poison gas on his enemies, they even provided him with the critical intelligence that was essential to the targeting of those chemical weapon attacks. Those attacks were much more deadly that the August 21 attack was, and many targeted civilian Kurdish populations.
No, it’s not the fact of chemical weapons being used that is prompting American sabre-rattling over Syria, and it’s not the fact that so many were killed on August 21 that is at play, either. It’s the fact that Obama drew a red line in the sand and Bashar al-Assad has had the temerity to cross it. If he doesn’t now respond with force, President Obama will lose face, and America will, too. So we face the Orwellian prospect of Obama, who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating UN diplomacy over force and proposing a new, more constructive relationship with the Muslim world, bombing a Muslim country without the necessary sanction of the UN Security Council.
Obama seeks to avoid tarnishing his Peace Prize by making a claim to moral motives, but his claim to hold the moral high ground is weak.
Obama has indicated that he has to bypass the UN Security Council because Russia, which he condemns, is using its veto there to protect its Syrian ally. And to date, Russia certainly has a lot to answer for in that regard. But ironically, it is Russia’s recent proposal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the UN, that offers President Obama the best way out of an intractable global relations dilemma. And it is usually hawkish President Vladamir Putin who comes out looking like the international peacemaker, not the Nobel laureate who lives in the White House.
Lieutenant-Commander (retired) David Robinson of Charlottetown is an 18-year veteran of Canada’s navy and holds an MA (Political Science) from the University of Calgary.