President Obama stated on August 20, 2012 that, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime...that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of [chemical] weapons moving around or being utilized." Ever since this declaration, the Syrian government has been very careful to repeatedly deny claims that it has used chemical weapons. However, in June of this year the British and French governments claimed that Syria used sarin gas in attacks against rebels. Then on June 13, the United States stated it had “definitive proof" of the use of chemical weapons by Syria. Last Wednesday, several hundred people were killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack. Because of this latest attack, it now appears that that the American and British governments are planning a series of air strikes on Syria. But why are the US and UK getting more involved in the Syrian Civil War now? Does the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria justify Western intervention? And why is it that the US can get away with using chemical weapons and not see a similar response from the international community?
I’m not entirely sure why the US and UK are getting more involved now, but I suspect it has little to do with the alleged use of chemical weapons. While the Asad regime has committed gross atrocities and crimes against the people of Syria, the West has largely turned a blind eye or delivered empty rhetoric. The West deliberately chose not to overtly intervene in Syria as it had in Libya and instead watched the destruction and brutality worsen. If the US and UK were unmotivated by the 100,000 people who have already died in the conflict, why are they all of a sudden taking a harder line towards Syria? In terms of numbers and overall destruction, the war has already taken its course and the rebels have essentially been defeated. Although the rebels received limited external support throughout the two-years of this conflict, why should the US get more involved on their side now? Is the US really getting involved to help out the rebels and Syrian people, or is it because the US wants to see the further destruction of Syrian society? The latter could definitely be possible, especially since the US has a penchant for destabilizing regimes in order to achieve its strategic aims (see here, here, and here for examples). I don’t buy for a second that the US is getting more involved for altruistic reasons, or because chemical weapons are some sort of “red-line” beyond which Syria must be attacked. Rather, the alleged use of chemical weapons is most probably an excuse to bomb Syria to achieve whatever the strategic objectives are for the US in this conflict. Guessing at what those strategic objectives are goes beyond the scope of my current discussion, but it is important to return to the question of how important chemical weapons are to the escalation of this conflict.
Chemical weapons, like nuclear and biological weapons, are considered weapons of mass destruction. There has been much debate about what constitutes weapons of mass destruction and whether or not the use of these weapons—how ever defined—is a collective red line for the international community. But why is the use of chemical weapons by Syria such a serious concern for the US? In terms of numbers, 1500 people have been killed by the alleged use of chemical weapons, which is just a fraction of the total number of people killed thus far in the conflict. If the opposition to the use of these weapons is not because of their high death toll, then could it possibly be for some moral concerns about the use of weapons of mass destruction?
This answer to this also seems unlikely, particularly since the US has used weapons of mass destruction in its most recent conflicts. The US used white phosphorus—a known chemical weapon—in the destruction of Fallujah. In addition, the US continues to use depleted uranium munitions, which have caused serious harm to civilian populations in Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. If the US government believes in the extreme moral hazard of using chemical weapons, then perhaps the US should stop using chemical weapons too. Although there is an obvious difference between the use of sarin gas and white phosphorus, both are highly toxic agents and banned chemical weapons based on international treaties. None of these weapons should be used by any government, but for the US to object to their use while simultaneously using chemical weapons itself smacks of hypocrisy.
Just because these chemical agents should not be used, does that give the “international community” the right to intervene when they are used? The answer again depends on who is using the weapons and how the “international community” is defined. The “international community” is short for the US and its Allies, while only weapons of mass destruction used by Western enemies are not tolerated. This, of course, smacks of hypocrisy and lends any actions by the US and its Allies as suspect.
Whether you are a liberal interventionist or a neoconservative in America's foreign policy establishment, the latest calls for airstrikes perpetuate a common double standard in Western political actions. So while the US can use chemical weapons to further its strategic aims, any enemy country doing so “crosses a red-line.” When thinking about this coming intervention, we should again seriously weigh the pros and cons of intervention. If the Anglo-American bombing of Syria does take place, will this intervention lead to positive outcomes? Is it even possible, given the disorganization on the side of rebels and the fractious sectarian violence in the country? Will an Anglo-American intervention be beneficial for anyone involved? Or will it perpetuate a bloody civil war? I’m not entire sure what will happen, but I know it will be a lose-lose situation for the Syrian people. It is important that the people who are now advocating and supporting an Anglo-American intervention in Syria think seriously about the stakes involved and whether or not an intervention is actually worth it. After all, principled diplomacy is the best way out of conflicts and it has proven to be one of the most effective way to manage conflicts throughout modern history. Perhaps it's time for a serious Anglo-American diplomatic push, rather than negotiating through bombs raining down from the sky.