Following allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime against the Syrian people, the U.S. is considering a military response. Steven Heydemann, special advisor for Middle East Initiatives at USIP, looks at some basic concerns and common questions that have been raised in the debate and offers his analysis. The views expressed are strictly his own

Photo courtesy of NY Times

Concern: Without a mandate from the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), military action against Syria is illegal. 

Heydemann: The consensus among legal experts is that U.S. action in the absence of a UNSC mandate is illegal under current international law.  Whether this is sufficient justification to prevent U.S. action is less clear.  President Obama’s administration must make the case that the need to respond to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons overrides the absence of a UNSC mandate.  The administration can do so on a number of grounds.  Direct threats to national security take precedent over the UNSC.  There are also established precedents for the use of force in the absence of a UNSC mandate.  The international norm that states have a collective “responsibility to protect” (R2P) populations that are subject to atrocities or crimes against humanity at the hands of their own governments is widely accepted, even if not yet a legal requirement.  In this view, sovereignty does not render governments immune from accountability in the event they are responsible for crimes against humanity, mass atrocities, or genocide.  Under R2P, the U.S. has a legitimate basis for military action, even if such action is not legal under current international law.  Further, when members of the UNSC are themselves parties to a conflict and the UNSC thus becomes deadlocked, mechanisms other than the UNSC may be needed to establish the legality, legitimacy, or necessity of military action by some member states of the U.N.

Concern: The U.S. does not have clear objectives in Syria.

Heydemann: U.S. objectives are actually pretty clear.  The stated U.S. objective is to hold the Assad regime accountable for its alleged use of chemical weapons and prevent future uses.  Accountability requires that the regime pay a price for its use of chemical weapons.  The intent of imposing a price on the regime is to deter the future use of such weapons, to reinforce international law concerning the inadmissibility of the use of chemical weapons, and to maintain the credibility of the U.S. that it will respond when certain lines are crossed.  There is debate about whether these objectives are adequate, appropriate, or too difficult to achieve.  Yet the objective as defined by the administration is fairly straightforward. 

Concern: The U.S. will make mistakes and innocent people will be killed.

Heydemann: The goal of military action is to deter the Assad regime from using weapons that disproportionately and indiscriminately kill civilians.  It is possible, if not likely, that U.S. military action will also kill innocent people, individuals whose lives are every bit as worthy as mine or yours.  We should not kid ourselves or others about this.  We should not pretend that it cannot happen, or that such deaths would not undermine the “benefits” of military action. 

Concern: Attacking the Assad regime means the U.S. will be helping al-Qaida.

Heydemann: This claim rests on the presence of al-Qaida affiliated groups active in the struggle to overthrow the Assad regime, and the possibility that weakening the Assad regime will empower such groups.  The link between a limited military strike on select regime targets and the strengthening of al-Qaida in Syria, however, is at best dubious.  Salafist armed groups among the Syrian opposition oppose U.S. military strikes out of fear that they will become secondary targets.  They are also aware that U.S. and Western efforts to bolster moderate groups within the armed opposition pose a threat to their influence and future role in Syria.  Militant Islamist armed groups in Syria have benefitted from the perception that the West does not care about what happens in Syria and does not support the opposition.  A shift in U.S. policy in which limited strikes are combined with more active support for the moderate opposition is a threat to al-Qaida’s power.

Concern: Maintaining U.S. credibility is not adequate justification for a military strike.

Heydemann: Credibility is one of many forms of currency that affect a state’s influence and power in the international system.  Permitting it to erode has negative consequences; acting to prevent its erosion is a legitimate factor in foreign policy decision making.    There is a risk that a failure to follow through on explicit commitments will have negative consequences. 

Question: Why single out the use of chemical weapons as justification for military action when the Assad regime has killed tens of thousands using conventional weapons?

Heydemann:  Chemical weapons are different, and are recognized as different by international law.  Their use is widely agreed to require a different set of responses than the use of conventional weapons.  It is true that Syria’s experience highlights the absurdity of the distinction between conventional and chemical weapons.  In a conflict marked by repeated atrocities and crimes against humanity carried out using conventional weapons, waiting to act until the use of chemical weapons provides justification for doing so is a dubious position, morally and strategically.  Nonetheless, the distinction between chemical and conventional weapons is real, and it should be taken into account in determining how the U.S. and other states respond to their use.

Concern: The U.S. is behaving hypocritically.  It is proposing military action in Syria when it has not done so in other cases of atrocities and mass violence by other governments.

Heydemann: U.S. responses to mass violence are not consistent.  In some cases, the U.S. does nothing.  In others, in varying degrees, it acts.  The arguments used to support action or inaction are often inconsistent.  Is this hypocrisy?  Not necessarily.  The factors that lead to a decision to intervene in one case and not in others are complex.  They include whether military action will work, whether a specific conflict is important to U.S. interests, and what price the U.S. will pay if it does not act.  Each circumstance should be judged on it unique conditions.
As an aside, we should not exaggerate the benefits of consistency.  Flexibility in the management of foreign policy is not a bad thing.

Concern: The U.S. can’t be sure that military action will be effective.

Heydemann: True, the U.S. can’t be sure that military action will be effective.  What “effective” means, however, depends on what the U.S. is trying to achieve.  Given its stated objectives, we will know whether military action has been effective only by monitoring whether the Assad regime uses chemical weapons afterwards.  If it does, we will know that military action has not worked, and we will need to determine whether additional actions are required. 

Public debate about the consequences of military action has raised many questions.  Will it bring about the fall of the Assad regime?  Will it advance or erode prospects for negotiation?  Will it accelerate or stem Syria’s drift toward fragmentation? Will it help or harm terrorist groups associated with the Syrian opposition?  All of these questions are worth asking.  However, none are directly relevant to the question of whether military action will be effective in achieving the stated goals of the operation as defined by the Obama administration. 

Concern: The U.S. cannot define success and does not have an exit strategy or end game.

Heydemann: The U.S. can define success: deterring future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.  What the U.S. will do in the event an initial military strike fails to achieve this objective is less clear.  The administration will need to balance its promise to limit U.S. involvement in Syria against the consequences of expanding its military campaign against the Assad regime.  However, preserving flexibility to adjust U.S. options as conditions unfold does not make it inevitable that the U.S. will expand its military efforts, or that the U.S. has placed itself on a ‘slippery slope’ that will ineluctably lead to full-scale intervention.   In addition, imposing arbitrary constraints on U.S. options may be self-defeating.  Under conditions of uncertainty, there are limits to how much clarity the administration can or should provide about what it will do.  What is feasible, however, is to define the outer boundaries of a U.S. commitment—which at the moment are defined in terms of “boots on the ground,” and the scale of force that would be used—without requiring an unrealistic level of clarity about how a U.S. military effort will unfold.

Related Publications

Myanmar: China, the Coup and the Future

Myanmar: China, the Coup and the Future

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

By: Jason Tower; Priscilla A. Clapp

In making major deals with Myanmar’s military rulers, China seems to be violating its official guidance for investment abroad: Avoid conflict zones. Although Myanmar is in a state of collapse and widening rebellion, China continues to advance plans for a complex economic corridor in the country with the military unveiling steps to move ahead with big joint-venture projects. The generals’ bid to appear in control of things is obvious. China, on the other hand, seems to have fallen into a trap. Cozying up to the junta puts its investments at immediate and long-term risk and erodes its standing in regional organizations. To protect its interests, Beijing should press the junta to curb its rampant violence against the population and to restore the elected government.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Washington’s Allies and Partners Weigh in on U.S.-China Competition

Washington’s Allies and Partners Weigh in on U.S.-China Competition

Thursday, June 3, 2021

By: Patricia M. Kim

The Biden administration has adopted an overarching strategy of renewing relations with allies and partners to counter China where necessary, while also cooperating with Beijing when it is in the United States’ interest to so. As competition between Washington and Beijing heats up, however, avenues to resolve conflicts peacefully between the two major powers remain limited. A recent USIP report brought together U.S. and Chinese authors to offer recommendations on how the two powers can enhance strategic stability. But how do U.S. allies and partners factor in and what steps would they like Washington and Beijing to take to prevent conflict and manage crises? 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Understanding Organized Crime and Violence in Central Asia

Understanding Organized Crime and Violence in Central Asia

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

By: Lawrence P. Markowitz; Mariya Y. Omelicheva

The influence of organized crime on governance and the rule of law in Central Asia has long been recognized, but its role in violence is less broadly understood. Looking at conflicts in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, this report examines the ways that organized criminal actors exploit popular mobilization (such as protests) and weaken state controls in episodes of violence. Recommendations for governments, international agencies, and civil society groups draw from expert interviews and research to address the range of organized criminal motives and circumstances.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications