A red line with more problems than answers

While the ongoing debate in Washington is about to converge on a vote on authorizing a limited military air-strike campaign against regime targets in Syria, the U.S. administration is willfully bypassing the UN Security Council and with it the demand for international law itself. It is almost tragically ironic that the Obama administration is about to break international law to uphold the universal norms and values on the non-use of chemical weapons.

The problem is therefore not whether U.S. military action is unjustified; the problem is that none of the international treaties against the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons provide for any enforcement mechanisms that would allow the legal use of unilateral military action. Indeed it quite difficult to grasp that international law can be so indifferent to the suffering of the hundreds who have died in the gas attack and the thousands who have already died during this conflict. But international law is exactly doing what it is supposed to do. It is supposed to restrain military action by any one country and instead facilitate a broad consensus within the confines of the UN Security Council. The only such organ under international law that can authorize the use of force in the absence of self-defense.

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Yet, a military campaign that is both “limited in duration and scope,” as President Obama has put it earlier this week, is basically a punitive measure rather than a strategy conceptualized to end the Syrian conflict. According to the testimonies of Secretary Hagel, Kerry and Gen. Dempsey before the Senate Relations Committee on September 3, the mission objective is to persuade the Syrian government to refrain from using chemical weapons ever again. Whether such an assessment can be feasibly made over time, and whether the opposition fighters will adhere to the same constrains, remains anyone’s best guess. But punitive military actions, no matter how grounded in the best of intentions, are still considered illegal under the current framework of international law as a recent article by David Kaye in Foreign Affairs magazine reminds us.

Undeniably the difficulties in finding a feasible solution to the conflict in Syria are multiple, but they are all grounded in the fact that this is a civil war. A war that is sheltered by the notion of nationhood and sovereignty, and which by definition is being fought by both sides with extreme measures, resulting almost naturally in crimes against humanity and human suffering on a horrible scale.

But even for Washington there is no easy way in and no easy way out of a civil war in a Middle Eastern country. Once the US military is deployed and committed to the situation on the ground, the Pentagon will go above and beyond the call of duty to destroy the enemy. This is what US military forces are trained for and what we expect them to do. They are not nation-builders, they are not humanitarians, and they are certainly not shy of causing collateral damage to reach their objectives. As a result, justice will not be done, human suffering will continue, and the United States will fight another war on foreign soil.

However, the major question that remains yet unanswered is whether Washington can truly resist putting boots on the ground -- an option that would create the much sought for political alternative to the Islamic extremists on the one hand and the Bashar al-Assad government on the other.

Soesanto is an MA graduate from Yonsei GSIS University (Seoul, South Korea), and former full-time intern at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in the Center for Security Policy and the American Center for Politics and Policy in Seoul.

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