As promised I am tackling the subject of Syria. The problem is that my thoughts are still embryonic, so this post will be more of an extended musing on the subject rather than a coherent essay. Topics I will touch on in the post are:
- What exactly is being discussed when we’re talking intervention?
- What are the competing claims for and against intervention?
- Probable outcomes.
- How I’m leaning towards with regard to the prospect.
“Bashar, we think you have a problem…this is an intervention.”
The word “intervention” does a lot of heavy lifting during debates on Syria. Both partisan debates (see: Krauthammer, Bolton, et. al) and debates on whether or not to intervene at all center on are based on the interpretation of the word itself. These interpretations range from a minimal air campaign leading to a boon for Raytheon shareholders to a full-fledged boots on the ground invasion like Iraq. It’s clear that when we talk intervention we each have our own image in mind.
Let’s look at the types of intervention that are possible at this stage of the game.
- Minimal/short kinetic campaign using stand-off weapons. (Examples: 1998 retributive cruise missile strikes against Sudan/Afghanistan, Israeli strikes on Syrian supply convoy to Hezbollah)
- Short air campaign intended to hit Syrian government capability to wage war or continue chemical weapons attacks on civilians. (Similar campaigns might be Operation Desert Fox in the late 90s against Iraqi air defenses, operations against Libya in the 1980s)
- Long-term air campaign intended to alter the balance of power in a conflict zone. (Examples include Kosovo, the more recent Libyan interventions)
- Air campaign combined with limited ground presence to enforce a cease fire.
- Or full-fledged boots on the ground invasion.
Short of Michael Ladeen or Doug Feith’s fantasies, the latter two aren’t likely to happen. In fact it’s probably safe to simply write them out of the realm of possibility. Instead what the Administration seems to have planned is some combination of the first and second options.
Are these options legal? They’re at least ambiguous enough under the War Powers Resolution that they’re supportable under domestic (if not international) law. The abdication of Congressional responsibility regarding the use of force and their failure to curtail the power shift is a topic for another day, but one where the existing law is certainly less clear than Jason might like.
So rather than debate legality or the possibility of escalation, I’d like to focus on the first two possibilities for the time being.
Breaking the Letter of Law to Save its Spirit?
The only justifiable reason for intervention in Syria at the present moment would be to enforce a rather fragile and weak norm against the use of chemical weapons. The problem here is that Syria itself isn’t a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which was intended to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Further there isn’t a forced compliance mechanism within the body of the CWC that can be cited as justification for intervention despite the use of chemical weapons.
The question becomes then is if there’s a sufficient enough international norm against the use of chemical weapons (particularly against civilian targets) to warrant intervention even in the absence of distinct international law authorizing use of force. Here I express skepticism.
First, the established international norm against chemical weapons has traditionally been focused more on conventional warfare. Moreover, use of chemical weapons to crack down on domestic civil strife hasn’t been enforced in any meaningful sense. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on its own insurgency groups in the 90s met with a tepid international response. Few other states remain as non-signatories of the CWC and possess sufficient chemical weapons capability to even consider their use. As crude as this sounds, Syria is too much of an outlier to be a useful example, and we’re not likely to see any additional signatures on the CWC (there’s only 5 non-signatories anyway) on the basis of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons capability.
Second, any attempt to establish new international law norms would be badly undermined in a situation where there’s a clear division between great powers. Specifically the extent of Russian and Chinese skepticism on the matter makes it more likely to create a split in international consensus rather than create a norm. The tenuous nature of the Libya and Kosovo precedents suggest Russia and China are both looking for an opening to create an overturning example. Russia in particular has been burned twice in the last two decades, and are likely looking to get some measure of pay back for US intervention in Kosovo and for the widely expanded western impact on Libya.
Let’s not discuss the odds….
So what are the probable outcomes of any intervention? The US professes that regime change isn’t really on the table, and any attempt to use an intervention to force Assad to the table seems destined to fail before it even gets started. Strikes on his chemical weapons capability is not likely to sufficiently curtail his capability to launch future attacks, and any action taken with insufficient domestic support is likely to curtail any future options from the US government.
Is my present view of the matter. My own sense is that a limited kinetic strike is likely to cause little damage and simply be symbolic. It won’t kill a lot of people, it won’t disarm Assad sufficiently, and it’ll give Russians enough figleaf of outrage to disarm the protests against Sochi. In short any strike is likely to be an American delopement in the duel, satisfying honor with the smell of burning powder without risking (much) life and limb.
My sense of resignation comes from the rather cavalier attitude taken by the US Congress (look, guys, it’s pretty important when we’re talking use of force, certainly important enough to interrupt your fucking vacation), the lackadaisical attitude on human rights violations in the world writ large, and really just the state of debate hinging as it does on partisan needs and exaggerated hyperbole. Syria’s a basket case, it’s not likely to get any better anytime soon, and we’ll be forgetting about it in favor of Miley Cyrus’s next embarrassing incident a week or two after the cruise missiles land.