Last week’s decision by the United States to target suspected Syrian government chemical weapons depots with “precision airstrikes” was met with nearly uniform praise. However, these strikes were a hasty, and perhaps illegal, reaction to the latest crisis in Syria.
President Donald Trump approved the airstrikes — conducted in concert with the British and French governments — after citing the “mindless chemical attack” on April 7 that killed dozens of civilians in the Syrian city of Douma. The U.S. has charged the attack was perpetrated by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
Mr. Assad has been accused, on a number of occasions, of using chemical weapons against rebels fighting in the Syrian Civil War, as well as innocent civilians. In 2013, the United Nations found that Mr. Assad had approved the use of chemical weapons himself.
Mr. Assad has repeatedly denied the charges, claiming he complied with an international agreement under which his country’s supply of chemical weapons was supposed to be voluntarily destroyed. In 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) called Syria’s cooperation in the destruction of chemical weapons “satisfactory.”
Despite this finding, there is evidence to indicate that Mr. Assad did not live up to the agreement, and that his government has continued to use chemical weapons against both opposition forces and civilians.
The use of chemical weapons is a war crime that is condemned by most nations. But that does not mean the use of U.S. military force in Syria to combat the use of chemical weapons is the right solution to this problem.
For starters, the April 7 attack has not been fully investigated by international authorities. While there are strong suspicions that Mr. Assad’s government committed the atrocity, experts from the OPCW have not had the chance to investigate the site of the attack. The investigators had not arrived in Syria by the time the U.S. conducted its missile attack early on the morning April 14, and they have since been blocked from examining the site. As a result, the decision to conduct the most recent recent airstrikes in Syria — which includes those conducted by the U.S., UK, France, as well as Israel — was made without a full or thorough investigation.
The decision to conduct these strikes has also been labeled as a “humanitarian decision,” purporting to highlight the United States’ unwillingness to tolerate the use of chemical weapons and the murder of civilians. This argument does not hold up, however.
The U.S. has a history of ignoring the use of chemical weapons — a history which predates former President Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” — as long as the user of such weapons is a U.S. ally. Not only did the U.S. tolerate the use of chemical weapons by then-Iraq President Saddam Hussein against Iranian soldiers, the U.S. government sold Iraq the materials necessary to construct the weapons and provided them intelligence on the location of enemy combatants, knowing Iraq would use chemical weapons against them. Hussein would later use chemical weapons on civilians, as well.
Furthermore, if the killing of innocent civilians was the standard by which the U.S. chose to intervene abroad, then it should have intervened in a place like Yemen.
In Yemen, the Saudi Arabia government has intervened militarily to influence the outcome of the ongoing Yemeni Civil War. As a result of this action, the Saudi Arabian government has been accused, multiple times, of violating international law.
More than 10,000 civilians have been killed by Saudi-led airstrikes, and the Saudis have been accused by the Human Rights Watch of committing war crimes by using U.S.-supplied cluster bombs in civilian areas. In addition, the Saudis have blockaded the country, creating a famine that has endangered the lives of nearly 20 million Yemeni. Malnutrition and disease are now rampant in Yemen, and the situation is viewed as a “humanitarian disaster.”
But the U.S. government has not intervened. After all, Saudi Arabia is a long-time ally.
To make matters even more complicated, Mr. Trump is the latest president to dispense with what the Framers of the U.S. Constitution stipulated to be as the requisite approval of Congress to make war, in the process ignoring the War Powers Act of 1973, and interpreting the role of commander-in-chief in an overly broad way. For its part, Congress has allowed presidents to disregard the War Powers Act, and it has failed to update the Authorization for Use of Military Force.
His administration’s legal justification for the air strikes is classified, which makes it almost impossible to mount a fully informed debate of the legality or wisdom of the decision.
However, recent history has shown that neither military strikes masquerading as humanitarianism or selective moral outrage have generated much goodwill toward the United States amongst the populace of the Middle East.
The quagmire that the U.S. initiated in Iraq — a debacle that has played an important role in the formation of ISIS, the start of the Syrian Civil War, and from which the U.S. is unable to remove itself — began under the guise of humanitarianism.
One of the principle, long-term effects of the endeavor has been to foster the radicalization of Islamic youth in many parts of the world and much greater resentment toward the United States and its policies.
When the U.S. utilizes military action in one part of the Middle East, claiming it was done out of a need to defend the innocent, but then ignores death and destruction (or is even the cause of it) in other areas, the at-risk populations of a country like Yemen take note and their resentment toward the U.S. grows.
Mr. Trump’s attempt to change Bashar al-Assad’s policies with regard to the use of chemical weapons by means of a missile strike did not work in April, 2017, and it is unlikely to work in 2018. I cannot help but think that if the U.S. had waited for the results of an international investigation, had considered the larger implications of exercising its military power, or applied moral consistency to its foreign policy, the results might have been different and better.
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