On August 21, the Syrian regime apparently used chemical weapons against the opposition in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing anywhere from 500-1,300 people, the numbers vary according to U.S. intelligence reports made public. While the Assad regime has long had a great deal of innocent blood on its hand and now may be guilty of using chemical weapons, this is not a sufficient reason for the United States and its Western allies to bomb Syria. In the first place we are not even certain the Syrian regime actually used these weapons. U.S. intelligence on these matters has erred and lied to the world before.
For example, in 1998 the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan claiming that Sudan had supplied al-Qaeda with chemical weapons that had been used in its attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Later we learned that the intelligence supposedly implicating Sudan was incorrect. Similarly in the run up to the war that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and whose murders and repercussions are still being felt a decade later, the United States falsely claimed that it had incontrovertible intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which justified attacking. It turned out that U.S. intelligence was wrong again or simply lied to justify going to war. Given such an uncertain track record, why should we be so certain that the U.S. intelligence is correct this time? And even if it is correct, does this justify bombing just because the Syrian regime has crossed a redline drawn by the United States, which then would lose face if it did not retaliate? Furthermore, some have even claimed that the Syrian opposition is the real culprit because it wanted to get the United States to topple the Assad regime which it cannot do itself.
The United States justifies its possible attack against Syria on the grounds that the Assad regime has violated international law by using chemical weapons. However, using napalm in Vietnam did not bother the United States when it was the one using such weapons. More recently, the United States simply ignored Saddam Hussein’s usage of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja on March 16, 1989 because in those days Saddam was its ally. Does anyone doubt that the United States would be making all this fuss about chemical weapons if it had been the opposition in Syria that had used them?
It is patently illegal under international law for the United States to bomb Syria unless authorized to do so by the United Nation Security Council or in self defense. Neither applies to the current situation. The legal way for the United States to respond to this crisis is to negotiate with Russia to bring the Security Council on board. The United Nations was constituted in the first place not to take military action unless all five permanent members of the Security Council concurred. Otherwise, the United Nations would simply become the tool of one great power or the other, not the arm of international justice. By not acting in this case, the United Nations might be wiser than the United States, although very few Americans want to hear this. Barring UN action, the United States might seek Arab League support. However by bombing without such international approval, it is the United States that is violating international law, not the Assad regime.
Furthermore, if the United States bombs, it runs the risk of escalating the Syrian civil war into a regional and even international war that might involve Russia and Iran and inevitably bring in Israel, which of course has long possessed nuclear weapons illegally but which the United States never mentions because Israel is its ally. Despite assurances that it would only conduct precise surgical strikes, the so-called collateral damage, that is innocent civilians the United States would kill if it bombed Syria, is yet another reason not to do it. What is more, the Assad regime would surely seek to retaliate if bombed. Tit for tat bombings could soon escalate into a much larger war that nobody in their right mind would want.
In addition, if the United States succeeded in bombing Assad into surrender, it might lead to an even worse situation from the point of view of U.S. national interest because some of the most powerful elements of the Syrian opposition are affiliated with al-Qaeda, Jablat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) being prime examples. U.S action against Assad could bring about this law of unintended consequences. If an al-Qaeda state actually came to power in a post-Assad Syria, suddenly the United States would have to exercise real self-defense against Syria similarly to what occurred when the United States armed Islamist elements in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to suffer blowback on September 11.
In addition, if the United States with its British and French allies strikes Syria, it will look like Western imperialism again rearing its ugly head in the Middle East. We might then open the gates of hell and bring upon ourselves even more unwanted blowback from a union of Arab nationalists with Islamic Jihadists and Salafists. Have we learned nothing about how to proceed intelligently in international affairs? How many more American lives do we want to needlessly lose, not to mention the thousands of others who have already died in Iraq and Afghanistan, before we learn that there are more intelligent ways to handle these matters?
Professor Michael M. Gunter
About Michael Gunter:
Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee and from 2002-2010 also taught during the summers at the Megatrend International University Vienna in Austria. In addition, he teaches for the U.S. government area studies program in Washington, D.C. He is the author of numerous critically praised scholarly books on the Kurdish question, the most recent being Kurdish Historical Dictionary, 2nd ed., 2011; The Kurds Ascending: The Evolving Solution to the Kurdish Problem in Iraq and Turkey, 2nd ed., 2011; The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis, 1999; and The Kurds and the Future of Turkey, 1997. In addition, he is the co-editor (with Mohammed M. A. Ahmed) of The Kurdish Question and the 2003 Iraqi War, 2005; and The Evolution of Kurdish Nationalism, 2007. He has also published several other scholarly books and more than 150 scholarly articles on the Kurds, Turkey, Armenians, numerous other topics dealing with the Middle East, United Nations, and other topics in such leading periodicals as the Middle East Journal, Middle East Quarterly, Middle East Policy, Current History, Middle East Critique, Foreignpolicy.com, Third World Quarterly, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Orient, Insight Turkey, Worth (Robb Report), American Journal of International Law, World Affairs, Orbis, and International Organization, among others. In addition, he was a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in International Relations in Turkey. He also has held Fulbright awards for China and Israel. Currently he is the secretary-general of the EU Turkey Civic Commission, an NGO working within the European Union Parliament to promote further democratization in Turkey to facilitate its accession to the EU. He has been interviewed about the Kurdish question and the Middle East on numerous occasions by the international and national press.