Since the August 21 chemical attack in Syria the international community has refocused its attention on the Syrian quagmire, with the three key western protagonists, the US, UK, and France, preparing to take it upon themselves to react regardless of UN Security Council sanctioning. Their justifications, intentions, and scope of action however are becoming increasingly broad, contradictory, and with widely varying outcomes.
By Arthur Bernhoff
On seven different occasions the US Administration had discussed to some degree what it considered “red lines” in relation to the transfer or use of chemical weapons in Syria. Since March 2013 there had been indications that chemical weapons have been used several times but on a limited scale, with no clear culpability, and with no agreement towards an international response. With the large-scale chemical attack in Damascus on August 21st, international condemnation has put pressure on the West to react. The US and its close allies are now in discussions over the legal and moral justifications of military action, the intentions behind such action, and their limitations. The resulting official statements, however, have been contradictory, fluid, and offer widely varying outcomes.
While the focus last week was on whether or not an attack had taken place, even before the UN inspectors arrived in Damascus this week it had shifted to who to blame. With Vice President Joe Biden’s statements this week that the Assad regime was clearly “responsible” for that attack, there seemed little room for doubt. By mid-week the US Administration appeared unwilling to wait for the outcome of the UN investigation and all indications were that a military response was imminent. Wednesday’s UN Security Council meeting to address the issue ended in failure, with Russia and China rejecting the UK’s simultaneous pursuit of a resolution for military action while the UN investigation in Damascus was still underway. By Thursday, the US Administration appeared more willing to delay strikes until the UN inspectors leave Syria on Saturday, giving its Administration more time to coordinate military efforts with its partners.
In spite of the recent US decision to wait it appears likely that attacks are a foregone conclusion regardless of the results of the investigation. The choice of words by the Obama Administration even covers an eventuality in which Assad is later found not to be behind the August 21 attack. In Biden’s choice of words, the term “responsible” allows for the argument that, whether or not Assad gave orders, he is still technically responsible for what takes place within Syria. The rhetoric out of the White House has been fluid. While president Obama recently stated that “we have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these (attacks) out,” State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf opened the door for other possible results of the investigation, telling a press briefing that “the commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for the decisions made under their leadership, even if… he’s not the one that pushes the button, or says ‘Go’ on this”.
There is growing evidence surfacing from Syria’s ally Russia as well as videos available on-line which bring into question whether or not the Assad regime was behind the attacks or if it was instead a calculated strategy employed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The incentive for the FSA would be of course to draw Western powers in to intervene. The FSA has remained internally divided and continues to lose ground around Damascus. The FSA motives coupled with the available evidence indicating that the FSA has the capability for such an attack, provides enough grounds to take pause and allow the UN weapons inspectors time to complete their tasks. The verbiage used by the US Administration paves the way for further interpretation as well, if arguing that the government is generally responsible for the safety of all its citizens. From this perspective, whether perpetrated by the opposition or his own forces, Assad is still ultimately responsible. But United Nations Security Council members will not agree on any course of action, most notably with Russian and Chinese objections. The US and the UK have now both signalled that they will go ahead with military action regardless of UN endorsement. But nowhere had they previously clarified what the repercussions of crossing the red lines would be.
The US, UK and France are currently uncoordinated in their stated intentions behind a non-UN sanctioned attack. President Obama claimed it would be used simply as a message to Assad, telling PBS NewsHour that it would be a “shot across the bow” warning Assad that he had “better not do it again”. The US stated that it would conduct “limited punitive military strikes” and that they had no interest in regime change. With polls suggesting about 60% of Americans are against US intervention, the US is now also reframing military action in Syria in terms of its own “national security interests”, more palatable for domestic consumption. The UK is instead using humanitarian grounds as justification, submitting a draft resolution “authorizing all necessary measures to protect civilians” in Syria. The French president, Francois Hollande, however spoke of making the Syrian opposition a stronger alternative, notably with increased firepower. The scope of any military strikes varies widely depending on which of these intents are emphasized. If the intent is punitive, then actions could potentially be limited in scope and short in duration. If they are security or humanitarian-related then a “shot across the bow” would be meaningless and longer-term intervention required. And the French option of changing the balance of power on the ground is a clear “red line” that Iran, Syria, and Hizb’allah have all indicated would result in an all-out-regional-war. In all cases, the current framing of the justifications and intentions behind military action appears to make the results of the UN investigation irrelevant.
Arthur Bernhoff is currently based in Beirut while finishing research and writing for a PhD in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews. He has held a research affiliation with the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES) at the American University of Beirut since 2009 and is an affiliate researcher at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) at St. Andrews.