In a surprising move last Saturday, President Obama announced that he would seek Congressional approval for a proposed military strike to punish the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for allegedly carrying out a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds or more civilians a couple weeks ago. That decision, which President Obama apparently made after overruling his advisers who believed that no such authorization should be sought before launching a strike, was the right one, as then-candidate Obama himself explained in 2007:
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
But while the decision to seek Congressional authorization is the right one, we remain unconvinced that the Obama Administration’s proposal to launch a military strike on Syria is either justified or reasonable. In our view, at least four critical questions remain. If you agree, call your Congresspeople and urge them to demand answers to the following four questions before deciding whether to authorize military action in Syria.
1. Is It Clear That the Assad Regime Launch an Attack?
Given that military action will inevitably kill people, cost significant amounts of money, and pose a risk of backlash or further escalation, supporters of initiating military action should always be required to satisfy a very high burden of proof to justify such action. In light of the intelligence debacle that occurred over the Iraq War, the burden of proof for here is, and should be, even higher.
The evidence is clear that there has been a chemical weapons incident that killed at least hundreds of people. Both the US and the British government have released intelligence assessments contending a “high level of confidence” that the incident was the result of an intentional attack by the Assad regime. But at least the publicly released versions of both assessments offer little more than circumstantial evidence that the Assad regime was responsible here. The only specific evidence identified is communications involving a senior official in the Assad regime confirming that chemical weapons were used. A description of those calls, however, described them as involving “an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.” That description suggests a rogue officer or an accidental use of chemical weapons, not an officially approved attack. While the Assad regime is ultimately responsible for the actions of its soldiers, it may be appropriate for the response to a rogue or accidental use of chemical weapons to differ from the response if the Assad regime is deliberately using such weapons.
The bottom line here is that circumstantial evidence is not enough, especially given that it is unclear why the Assad regime would use chemical weapons a few days after UN inspectors arrived in the country. In addition, it remains possible that a rebel group could have launched the attack to try to bring the US into the war. More solid evidence is needed that Assad was behind the attack and, fortunately, the extra time provided by the seeking of Congressional approval allows for further investigation and discovery of such evidence.
2. Where is the International Support?
The justification for a military strike in response to a chemical weapons attack would be that there are international norms against the use of chemical weapons. But it is also clear that international law prohibits military attacks on other countries unless they pose an imminent or direct threat. And the US does not have a ton of credibility as an enforcer of international norms given our invasion of Iraq, and given that in the 1980s we deliberately turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons as we supported Iraq in its war with Iran.
Ideally, no US military action would occur here without UN Security Council approval. Obviously, that is not going to occur given that Russia and China would veto any such proposal at the Council. But any bombing would be far more legitimate after an international investigation and at least an attempt to bring the UN on board. At a minimum, we should await the results of the UN weapons inspectors, who ended their investigation on Saturday and are now analyzing the results, and take our case to the UN to seek a response to any use of chemical weapons by Assad.
3. What Would a Military Strike Achieve?
Even assuming that the Assad regime deliberately launched a chemical weapons attack, it is not clear that a military strike in response would be advisable. A limited attack would likely do little to deter Assad. The larger the attack, however, the more likely we are to trigger a response from Syria or its allies in Iran or Russia. And, to the extent that our bombing Syria would help the rebels, remember they aren’t friends of ours. As described in a New York Times article discussing the risks of US military action in Syria:
For the United States, the challenge is to deliver the intended message to Mr. Assad without opening the door to a takeover by rebels linked to Al Qaeda, the collapse of state institutions, or a major escalation by Syria’s allies. Skeptics doubt that the United States — or anyone else — has the information to calibrate the attack that precisely.
That is partly because the United States is preparing to inject itself into a conflict that is no longer just about Syria, but has become a volatile regional morass that pits Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon, against Qaeda affiliates backed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf benefactors.
Assad is a horrible tyrant, and the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent. But even if it is clear that Assad used such weapons, it is not clear that US military action would make the situation better. Serious questions regarding what could be achieved through military strikes, and how we would avoid getting sucked into a terrible morass that has no clear winners for the US must be asked and answered before a decision of what, if any, further action should be taken.
4. Are There Better Options?
With military action a questionable and risky choice, other options for punishing the Assad regime and deterring further attacks should be explored. Two such options come to mind.
The first is to increase the sanctions on the Assad regime and anyone doing business with the regime. Currently, the US has three sets of sanctions against Syria: (1) a ban on US exports to Syria, (2) a bar on business with the Commercial Bank on Syria, and (3) freezing assets and blocking financial transactions with 20 Syrians for involvement with terrorist organizations or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Further steps could be taken, including prohibiting any business, such as Russian banks, from accessing the US financial system if they do business with Syria. As explained in a recent blog post at Reuters, such as a “banks-before-bombs” strategy:
could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street.
A second non-military step that should be taken is referral Assad and whoever else was involved in any intentional chemical weapons attack against civilians to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Such an approach could help undermine the legitimacy of the Assad regime and make lower level actors in the Syrian military less likely to cooperate with any orders to carry out further attacks.
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US military action in another country, especially one where there is an ongoing civil war between numerous dangerous and unfriendly groups, is a risky and expensive proposition. We are glad that President Obama stepped back from the brink of such action by calling for Congressional debate and a vote on authorization. We hope that Congress will ask the tough questions that must be answered before we take any action in Syria, and we urge our readers to call their Congresspeople to demand that they do so.