A poison gas attack on the 21st of August, according to US officials, killed over 1,400 people in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The international charity Medicins sans Frontiers estimates the number of dead at 355. The government of Bashar Al-Assad is being accused by US government officials of responsibility for the attack. On the 9th September, the United States Congress will begin debate on President Obama’s proposal to intervene militarily. So far the civil war has caused approximately 100,000 deaths and produced at least 1.7 million refugees, but the use of chemical weapons may have crossed a vaguely-defined ‘red line’ which the Obama administration has articulated several times over the past year.
Intervention is difficult to justify in any case, and in this instance it would probably be a mistake. It is unclear what intervention would solve, or what it is even intended to achieve. Military action will surely add to the casualties and chaos it is ostensibly intended to prevent.
Although war naturally provokes strong emotional reactions, it is important that opposition to intervention is intellectually sound. Unfortunately, opponents of intervention too often employ suspect arguments, weakening the case against military action. Following are some such claims.
“War is unjustifiable by definition”
In almost all cases, war is unjustifiable, and its costs outweigh its benefits. However, this does not mean there are no examples of justified wars and interventions. The American Revolutionary War, similarly to the Syrian revolution, was a legitimate reaction to an illegitimate government. American intervention in World War II contributed to ending the atrocities of the Holocaust, making it justified even though this wasn’t the explicit rationale for involvement. Involvement in Syria is unjustified not by definition, but because of the probable results.
“There are no humanitarian grounds for intervention”
This is not an argument that many people make, but it is worth addressing. There certainly is a humanitarian crisis in Syria; there is no other way to describe a death toll of 100,000 in two years. This does provide theoretical justification for intervening. It is acceptable in theory to use violence if it is certain that it would prevent greater violence, although this is not to say that such certainty applies to the situation in Syria. This basic principle is arguably already very widely accepted. Violent criminals are arrested and incarcerated, for example, in order to prevent them, at least temporarily, from doing further violence to citizens.
“The rebels are worse than Assad”
It is certainly true that elements of the rebel forces have an unpleasant agenda; the jihadi Al-Nusra Front is aligned with Al-Qaeda. Atrocities have also been increasingly attributed to rebel groups. Even though many of the rebels should not be tarred with the same brush, it is difficult to aid one group of them without giving advantages to the others; any delivery of arms could easily fall into the wrong hands. This is not to say, however, that the regime looks good by comparison or that there is no positive ideology anywhere among any of the opposition forces.
“The government did not use chemical weapons”
It is plausible, as some in the US have already claimed, that this was actually a ‘false flag’ operation by rebel forces looking to manufacture international outrage. Some rebels have already claimed that the attack was due to accidental mishandling of the weapons on their part. On the other hand, the Assad regime does own and produce weapons like the ones used, according to French spies, and is one of very few countries which have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing them. However, focusing on whether the ‘red line’ has indeed been crossed ignores the fact that it was arbitrary to begin with. Orders of magnitude more people, including civilians, have been killed so far via conventional means than anyone claims were killed in the gas attack. Classifying the use of a particularly cruel type of weaponry as the ‘red line,’ regardless of scale, seems to appeal more to the emotional revulsion towards chemical weapons than to any concern for international law or overall human suffering. Although the use of sarin gas is indeed a violation of international law, so is torturing children and deliberately killing civilians, and they are all atrocities.
“The US government simply loves war”
The Obama administration hardly has a clean record on foreign policy; the option of military means has been accepted too readily. However, to their credit, they have lacked the enthusiasm for all-out warfare that characterised the neoconservative era. Covert drone strikes are frightening, but they are certainly more restrained than the full deployment of troops that was seen in Iraq. Obama has been under pressure to intervene for two years, and has waited for the crossing of a ‘red line’ before demanding military intervention.
“Intervention is driven by imperialism”
Regardless of stated intentions, any and all Western involvement in the Middle East is said to be about securing power, resources and strategic advantage. Either the US is enforcing its hegemonic influence and status, or it is looking to protect its oil supply. There is some truth in this analysis, but these are not necessarily the only factors. It is possible for there to be military intervention that is ultimately spurred by humanitarian concern, even if an imperialist agenda exists as well.
Most importantly, though, results matter more than intentions. The harms likely to result from military action would make it a mistake regardless of the motivations.
“Not intervening is a no-cost option”
Military engagement would actively contribute to casualties and destruction, would be unlikely to cause significant progress, and thus might cause more harm than good. It may also be counter-productive, in hardening the resolve of government forces, extending and expanding the conflict, and provoking further atrocities through retaliation. These are educated predictions based on the US’s recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, let us take the position that the US is responsible for what it does not act forcefully to prevent. From this perspective, doing nothing does allow the continuation of the conflict and the associated atrocities. It also reinforces the message that severe human rights violations going unpunished is something of a norm.
Intervention would achieve little, result in more casualties and cause a host of unpredictable results. These may in time prove worse than anything happening at present. This does not however mean that we should be careless or overstate our case in arguing against it.
Image credit to theguardian.co.uk.