Canberra, 7 September 2013
The Middle East and South West Asia is yet to recover from two US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and indications are that the healing and normalisation process in these countries and neighbourhood will take years, if not decades. The so-called Syrian Civil War that broke out in March 2011, which has been variously provoked, stoked and impelled by external forces for their own purposes, after more than two years of the conflict has degenerated into a larger Islamic sectarian war between the Sunni oil-rich monarchical regimes of the region and the Shia countries in the crescent of northern Middle East. Key leaders of the G20 nations, in summit in St Petersburg as this is being written, have laid bare their bitter divisions over possible military action. On two extremes of the spectrum are Russia who is opposed to any strike, stating that it would further destabilise the region; and the US who feel it is necessary to initiate military action as a reaction to the use of chemical weapons. The readiness—bordering on haste in the case of UK and France—of the United States and its allies to initiate a military intervention in Syria looks to be the beginning of yet another ill-conceived effort to ‘do good’ for the international community, which on hind sight and analysis at a later date will readily be seen as an example of furthering selfish interests of the nations involved. 
The British Parliament, fortunately, has put a hold on the Prime Minister David Cameron’s enthusiasm to ‘do a Libya’ in Syria. The President of the most powerful nation in the world, Barak Obama, has asked the Congress to debate and sanction any military action that could be undertaken in Syria. The French President Francois Hollande is still keen to ‘do something’ but does not have the wherewithal to act alone, nor does he have active domestic support for it. Essentially the three nations that were in the forefront of putting the concept of ‘right to protect’ or R2P to test in Libya are now delaying initiation of any concrete action for domestic political reasons. What has triggered these initiatives and the sudden frenetic activity in the capitals of the Western world now, when the civil war in Syria has been raging for almost thirty months?
At the heart of the problem is the alleged chemical attacks on civilians perpetrated by the Assad regime. By all accounts, chemical weapons were used in an attack on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on 21 August. There are claims and counter-claims regarding the identity of the attackers. In fact, a declassified French intelligence report claims that at least three chemical attacks have so far been carried out by the Syrian government. The French President has been vociferous in calling for retaliatory action and has actively backed a punitive military response to be led by the United States. However, the three largest economies of Europe have taken different routes to react to the chemical attacks.
The British parliament has not only refused to authorise military action but some elements have also accused the Prime Minister of recklessness in his pursuit of an interventionist strategy. This has led to a fall in domestic support for the ruling coalition and David Cameron will need to step around this carefully. In the near future it is highly unlikely that the UK will be a key player in any military action that is initiated, other than perhaps to provide voluble support from the sidelines. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the final stretch of her re-election bid and would rather not have a contentious debate on intervention in Syria, which is unpopular with the general electorate, surface at this juncture. A recent poll showed that around two-thirds of the German population was against military intervention, even under the legitimacy of a UN mandate. The Chancellor has publicly announced that Germany would not be a party to military intervention, but is conscious of the impact that such a stance would have on Germany’s relationship with the US in case military action is initiated under a UN mandate (highly unlikely) or unilaterally undertaken and led by the US. Post-the German election and depending on who the winner is, there may be a great deal of nuanced manoeuvring and diplomatic overtures to be analysed.
The situation in France is again different to that of UK and Germany. France is more committed to military action, has been a proponent of lifting the current arms embargo in order to facilitate arming the rebels, and has stated that it is willing to act even without UN approval. Constitutionally the French President does not need parliamentary approval to initiate military action, but the reality is that intervention in Syria is unpopular with the electorate. Two things are certain—President Hollande will not act without the direct participation of the US in the military campaign; and he has not ruled out submitting the proposal to intervene in Syria for a vote in Parliament. At the moment, France is sitting on the fence enthusiastically propagating the need to initiate military action. Considering that the President’s popularity is at a record low, it is not likely that he will rush into any precipitate action, particularly in view of the fact that UK is fully out of the equation and the US is taking a very pragmatic and careful approach to initiating any military action.
Fundamentally the three major European powers are constrained by domestic political issues and are not in a position to carry forward their preferred international diplomatic initiatives that would promote their nation’s status as they be. Ten years after the disastrous intervention in Iraq and only a two years after the Libyan intervention—much touted as a success, but which has left a broken and dysfunctional state in its wake—the political consequences of unpopular or questionable military interventions hangs like a dark cloud over all European nations. The deafening silence on the issue of Syria from most of the European nations is both an indication of their general discomfort with intervention and the consequence of ill-conceived military actions. The on-going financial troubles and socio-political challenges are further eroding the will and the capability of European nations to engage in military adventures on foreign shores. Europe, as an entity of several sovereign nations with a commonality of interest, is in the unenviable position of having to be seen to support the US actions while not having either domestic support or the wherewithal to actually provide any military contribution. While bilateral relationships between the US and European nations will be pursued individually, the discomfiture of the European nations is open for all to see.
The United States— Unilateralism? Selective Morality? Two-facedness?
So that leaves the question of the United States—the primary and increasingly solitary player in the field demanding unilateral military action. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date or time that the US decided that Syria must be ‘punished’ for the use of chemical weapons against its own people. However, sometime during the last week of August there seems to have been a definitive agreement reached within the higher echelons of the Obama administration that at least punitive military action must be taken to bring a recalcitrant Syrian government to heel. There are powerful forces within the Washington establishment pushing the US inexorably to yet another war. The British parliamentary refusal to approve a motion—that was considered by the Prime Minister to have been preordained for approval—gave pause to this momentum. President Obama, very prudently, asked for Congressional approval to take any military action against Syria.
There are two reasons that would have made a unilateral attack on Syria by the US an illegal undertaking. First, the UN Charter, a treaty which the US had been deeply involved in developing and, one that the US Congress has approved making it a binding law for the nation, declares it illegal and a supreme war crime for any nation to launch an attack on another unless the nation initiating the hostilities has been attacked or is in imminent danger of being attacked. This is obviously not the case with the Syrian crisis. Second, under the War Powers Act of the US, the President is only empowered to initiate hostilities against another nation without prior Congressional approval when US interests, citizens or territory are in danger or under attack. Very obviously this is also not the case with respect to Syria. It must be added here that some legal experts opine that the President can initiate unilateral military action if the action is limited and of a one-time nature. This is legal hair-splitting, as lawyers are bound to do, to give Presidents unilateral freedom of action, which is not a true foundation of democratic governance. The referral to the Congress for approval is therefore a legal obligation although the President has obfuscated the issue by his rhetoric statement that as the leader of the oldest constitutional democracy, it is incumbent on him to ensure that power of the US is seen to be resting on the will of the people.
Slightly more than a week ago, President Obama had declared that Syria had become a threat to the US and its allies in the region because of its possession and use of chemical weapons. This is not the statement that should have come from the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Strictly speaking, by the letter of the law rather than the spirit, Syria has not violated international law if it has indeed used chemical weapons against its own people, as being alleged. It is not a signatory to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and has adhered to the 1925 Geneva Protocol on the use of Chemical Weapons which is applicable to armed conflict between states, and does not cover its use within the state’s borders. Incidentally, Egypt has also not signed the 1993 Convention and Israel is yet to ratify it. Evolving from this, Syria has not used or threatened to use chemical weapons against the US or for that matter any other sovereign nation and the UN has not passed or even debated any resolution for the use of military force against Syria. The right of collective (or individual) self-defence therefore cannot be evoked in this context to justify an attack on Syria. Legally, the case for intervention falls far short of meeting the requirements to initiate military action—the case is not merely weak, but indefensible.
The next is the question of unilateral actions being actively considered primarily by the US, UK and France. The reason being advanced is that both Russia and China would block any resolution for action in the UN Security Council. There are two aspects to this argument that must be analysed. The first is that both Russia and China still feel that their willingness to accept the ‘Western’ view was exploited in the case of Libya, where the intervening forces went far beyond the limits of the actions sanctioned by the UN Resolution. This will automatically make them suspicious of the actual motives of the Western nations in the current case. Second is that this reasoning for unilateral action implies that the permanent members of the Security Council have an obligation to agree with the majority Western powers on all resolutions. The very reason for the granting of a veto to each of these nations thereby gets defeated in this somewhat lopsided reasoning. If unilateral action is going to become the ‘norm’ then perhaps it is time to dissolve the Security Council and go back to the days of the 1930s.
It must be admitted that this is not the first time that chemical weapons have been used in the Middle East. They were used in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and both Iraq and Syria have used it internally in the past against their own people. These transgressions were ignored by the Western powers because it was convenient for them to do so at that time. Saddam Hussein, the primary perpetuator remained acceptable to the Western world till he became politically unviable and was cast aside as a thorn in the side. More importantly, the US’s use of chemical agents in Vietnam can perhaps be revisited by anyone wanting to question the new-found moral outrage that the US administration is displaying. The Secretary of State, John Kerry called the use of chemical weapons a ‘moral obscenity’! Different moral values—one for us and one for them—is not acceptable anymore in international diplomacy. The US could be faced with uncomfortable questions being asked, even if they are not answered and the parties asking the questions have no recourse to elicit an answer. There is another aspect to feigning moral outrage regarding such attacks. Is there a difference between the use of chemical weapons and conventional weapons if both result in the massacre of innocent civilians? More than 1000 people have been killed in Egypt when the interim government forcibly put down the pro-Morsi demonstrations, which has gone without any condemnation other than the ‘request’ to use less force! While no massacre can be condoned, selective use of the moral criteria makes any further action in Syria suspect in the eyes of the larger international community, especially the smaller nations.
Without meaning to sound pedantic, the question must be asked as to the right and responsibility of Western leaders to demand the ouster of President Assad as if they control and decide the political fortunes of a sovereign nation. To oust him, the West has supported and bolstered the rebels, both politically and militarily. Will the same leaders condone such interference in their own nations? In any case, the arrival of fundamentalist organisations with clear links to al-Qaeda have skewed this strategy, leaving the western leaders rather perplexed regarding the next step to be taken. The contrast between the attitude that has been taken regarding Syria and to Egypt is demonstrative of an extreme bias. The Syrian government is being castigated for suppressing peaceful and subsequently violent pro-democracy agitations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all interfered in the internal affairs of Syria, openly providing political and military support to the rebels, without any international outrage. On the other hand, the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations demanding the reinstatement of a democratically elected government and leader in Egypt has been lauded by the same nations as an action to safeguard democracy. In the long saga of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt, the US position has been one of extreme political ‘flexibility’ catering only to the compulsions of self-interest. The same flexibility is replaced by an almost complete rigidity in the case of Syria.
The US leadership is convinced that the Syrian government is guilty of chemical attacks and that the evidence that they have seen so far is sufficient to warrant military action. They do not see or feel the need to share the evidence with other world leaders, nor do they seem to seriously consider the repercussions of initiating military action in what is already a cauldron of extreme volatility.  The US impatience to strike Syria is inexplicable at best, especially considering their experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the recent past. However, they have also drawn a line on full intervention—restricting themselves to punitive action, read cruise missile strikes, to neutralise the Syrian chemical warfare capabilities. This scenario does not seem to take into account the futility of such an attempt if the chemical weapons have already been dispersed as is the case in Syria and considering the lack of actionable intelligence available from inside the country. Syria today represents a problem for which no one has an immediate solution. The ludicrousness of creating a humanitarian disaster through military action undertaken to avoid a humanitarian disaster is lost on the hawks of the Western world.
There is an opinion gaining ground that by referring the military option to Congress, President Obama has turned the rest of his presidency, the almost 1200 days that remain, into a lame duck one; and that he has abrogated his executive powers. Nothing could be farther than the truth. The President it seems understands that limited strikes are unlikely to serve any useful strategic purpose. He is therefore reluctant to take unilateral ‘executive’ decisions that will only increase the volatility in the region. In fact the only purpose that will be achieved by the strikes is to bolster the President’s credibility in the foreign affairs sphere from a domestic stand-point, where he has been constantly criticised as being indecisive. Whether this is reason enough to embark on a military course of action is debatable to say the least.
Whether or not the President’s credibility is being diminished or not, the perceived omnipotence of American power is finally being accepted as coming to an end. Ever since its involvement in open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, American power has been on the wane and the on-going Syrian conflict to which the US has only responded with inadequate rhetoric, indicative of a nation at the end of its tether and unwilling to continue to shoulder the burden of ‘policing’ the world. Gone is the self-imposed responsibility to create a safe, read modelled on the US, democratic world; the talks about America’s vital interests in the Middle East sound hollow even to the Americans; the appetite for intervention is finished; and perhaps, just perhaps, there is a better understanding in the apex decision-making bodies of the US that US activity in the post-Cold War era has only brought about the creation of false hopes in the nation and abroad, to be followed by severe disappointments and setbacks. US foreign policy, riding on the back of the nation’s preponderant military might has visibly failed, again and again. This is the time for the US to introspect, not blunder into yet another intervention with no chances of it being a restricted or limited interference. 
Great powers must claim and assert their position of greatness through the exercise of great restraint; not through the indiscriminate use of their great power that is brought to bear within the grey and overlapping area of right and wrong in legal, moral and political considerations.      

About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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