After the Clouds Have Cleared: Chemical Weapons and The Folly of Air Strikes Against Syria: Part I

In the past month, images of the suffering and devastation wrought by Assad’s use of chemical weapons have saturated media around the world. Many commentators have speculated on what exactly about the use of chemical weapons elicits such repugnance from the international community. Yet, is their use justifiable ground for a US-led military intervention? This is the fundamental question that has divided the international community on the issue of the Syrian civil war and the most pressing issue currently being discussed by leaders keen to curb Assad’s bloody repression of his own people. The US and its solitary European ally, France, seek to punish Assad for his brutality, while Russia, China, and Iran stand behind their embattled ally in Damascus.

President Obama has made it clear that he will enforce his 'red line,' but the American public and Congress are strongly opposed to military action against Syria.

Much has been made of President Obama’s “red line,” which has, up until the attacks on August 21, been perceived as a bluff.  However, as the culpability of the Assad regime in the attacks has become more plausible with each new intelligence report, President Obama has pressed for military action. However, Mr. Obama will find it very difficult to sell his case to the American people, the majority of which are opposed to airstrike surges against Syria.

What purpose would isolated airstrikes serve to advance American interests in the long term? Chemical weapons have been used by dictators before, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Yet, this episode apparently did not warrant military intervention on humanitarian grounds and, as has been made apparent recently, due to CIA involvement.

It is precisely this revelation that points to the ultimate bankruptcy of the decision to intervene in the form of airstrikes solely on the grounds that the “red line” of chemical weapon use has been crossed. Yes, the use of chemical weapons is reprehensible, but what of the over 100, 000 Syrians that have been slaughtered by conventional means?

At a time when American foreign policy makers are looking to detach themselves from the Middle Eastern quagmire and look toward the Pacific, such an action would be shortsighted, ineffective, and ill advised. 

Russia’s Man in Damascus

Not unsurprisingly, Russia strongly opposes a US-led military strike against Syria, unless conclusive evidence of the Assad regime’s culpability can be produced. The chasm between American and Russian interests vis à vis Syria and the Middle East is simply too wide to bridge. Without the imprimatur of all members of the UN Security Council and under the aegis of a diplomatic solution, the Syrian civil war will rage on. Yet, Russia’s recent call for Assad regime to place its chemical weapon stockpile under international supervision indicates that there may be more room for the US to manoeuvre than had been possible in the weeks since the news broke of the chemical attacks.

Putin has called for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile and to place it under international control.

As I discussed in a previous article, and as has been noted by virtually all commentators on the crisis, the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime constitutes a key Russian interest and last ally in the Middle East. The Assad regime is a steady customer of Russian arms in addition to serving as a bulwark against the spread and consolidation of radical Islamist groups in the region, who make up an element of the many splintered factions of the amorphous, murky category of “rebels” in Syria. Russia is not the only friend of Assad. China also supports Assad’s position through its veto as a member of the UN Security Council, while Iran views Syria as a crucial battleground against its Persian Gulf state rivals and wider sectarian conflict in the region.

Some of Russia’s reservations with regard to intervention and regime change are justified. For instance, Putin fears the chaos that would result after such operations and would allow for much more sinister factions to acquire power. The amorphous, heterogeneous, and splintered Syrian “opposition” or “rebels” are not to be granted too much credit by Western powers. Russia seems to appreciate the fog of civil war much more than the West does, and Putin is much more wary of the potential instability of a post-Assad Syria.

The Syrian Issue after St. Petersburg

President Obama left the G20 summit in St. Petersburg with the same dilemma he arrived with at the meeting. Immediately prior, Obama lost a traditional ally’s support when Great Britain’s Parliament voted against military action in Syria.

It is France, the US' oldest ally that is still pushing for military action against the Assad regime. An interesting reversal of US-French relations on the Middle East seen over the past decade...

At the summit, Mr. Obama’s push for action against the Assad regime fell on deaf ears as the majority of G20 members, from Germany to Brazil and, of course, Russia, opposed action without UN mandate.  Canada and France were among the few G20 members to support Obama’s call. The American President has his work cut out for him. He must now seek Congressional authorization for a US strike against Syria. But after more than a decade of deep entanglement in the troublesome region, what does Mr. Obama hope to achieve with isolated strikes against targets estimated to be valuable to the Assad regime? Only by considering the state of American interests in the Syrian crisis through the lens of a long-term foreign policy concept could such a limited strike hope to prove effective. Putin’s call for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons may help to move the situation toward a diplomatic solution, although the outlook remains bleak. The sheer logistic nightmare of placing Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile under international control will no doubt hinder progress toward a distant negotiated settlement.

About Christopher Kelly

Christopher Kelly is an MA candidate at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He holds a BAH with high distinction from the University of Toronto, where he specialized in twentieth-century European history and politics. Christopher’s research interests are broad in range and include transatlantic diplomacy, ethnic conflict, espionage, totalitarian regimes, and the securitization of cyberspace. Christopher has served as a research assistant for Professor Piotr Wróbel of the History Department at the University of Toronto and was an organizer of the 2013 Munk Graduate Student Conference, which examined the changing nature of conflict in the twenty-first century. Christopher was the Program Editor for Canada’s NATO. Contact: chris.kelly@atlantic-council.ca