In a press statement last week, President Obama indicated that he believed that there should be a military response against the government of Syria. The reason given was intelligence that the Assad government had used chemical weapons against civilians and the rebels in the current civil war. The use of chemical weapons is violation of international law. Many of my friends who are Humanists have been screeching ‘NO WAR!’ yet fail to offer a realistic non-military solution. Sometimes solutions are difficult but a common refrain in Humanism is to tell people what we are for and not just what we are against. If we are going to be against war then we need to offer a viable realistic non-military solution.
Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see — hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children — young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.
This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.
In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.
After this statement, many of my Humanist friends and others on the left immediately started shouting online and elsewhere “NO WAR IN SYRIA“. One friend was so mad she referred to the President as a neocon like Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration – which was ridiculous because the President isn’t making up reasons to respond with force like President Bush and his cronies did to get us into Iraq.
I get that. War should be a last resort in civilized rational society, but I think being against war, no matter what, paints one in a corner – such as dealing with a chemical attack against innocent civilians.
Why are chemical weapons considered worse than, say, bombing women and children? “Unfortunately, there are no international laws against war itself,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, tells Mother Jones. “But there are rules about how wars can and cannot be conducted…Holding the line against further chemical weapons use is in the interests of the United States and international security, because chemical weapons produce horrible, indiscriminate effects, especially against civilians, and because the erosion of the taboo against chemical weapons can lead to further, more significant use of these or other mass destruction weapons in the future.” Chemical weapons also evoke the horrors of World War I and the Holocaust.
But writer Paul Waldman sees international hypocrisy on the subject. “Getting killed by mustard gas is surely awful,” he writes in The American Prospect. “But so is getting blown up by a bomb. Using one against your enemies gets you branded a war criminal, but using the other doesn’t.” Steve Johnson, a visiting fellow at the United Kingdom’s Cranfield University and an expert on chemical warfare, said in an interview, “I can understand why [chemical warfare] feels emotive to us—it is insidious, there is no shelter, it is particularly effective on the young, elderly, and frail, and can be a violent and excruciating death.” He adds, “When one breaks it down ethically, though, it seems impossible to say that it is more acceptable to kill 100 people with explosives than with nerve agent.”
Are chemical weapons allowed under international law? Nope. In 1925, following the large-scale use of nerve gas, tear gas, and other deadly agents during World War I, countries signed a Geneva protocol prohibiting the use of gas as a method of warfare on the grounds that it has been “justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” Using chemical weapons is a war crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). A legally binding arms control treaty on chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention, was drafted in 1992. Its signatories agreed to not use or produce chemical weapons, and to destroy their remaining stockpiles. Since 1997, when the treaty went into effect, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has inspected more than 2,600 chemical weapons sites declared under the treaty.
I agree with the President that there needs to be a response to Syria, so I asked my friends point-blank what non-military solution is there. As a Humanist, I need to be able to tell people what I support not just what I’m against. Women and children dying from a chemical attack needs a response.
In general, my friends had no non-military solution. I asked on Facebook and twitter and got only the usual “why do we have to get involved when we have [insert domestic issue]” and I was also given the diplomatic solution:
Military intervention must therefore be replaced with measures that buttress initiatives to mediate a political compromise, the only real option in ending the Syrian madness. To incentivize a cease-fire, to deter further atrocities and to commit the parties to negotiating a settlement, a contingent UN Security Council (UNSC) referral of Syria to the ICC should be considered.
To elaborate, the ICC can only realistically gain jurisdiction over Syria with a UNSC referral. Previously, the UNSC has only unconditionally referred countries to the ICC. In a contingent referral concept, the UNSC would refer Syria for investigation of mass atrocities only if the parties do not reach a peace deal and political settlement within a set period of time, or violate the agreement thereafter. With innocent blood on the hands of all warring factions, the proposed formula contains the necessary leverage to compel the parties to reach a political resolution.
This option — or even the threat thereof — is a true catalyst for peace. While the U.S. and Russia may publicly obfuscate crimes committed by its “side,” they privately agree that mass crimes have occurred on all sides and must stop.
Russia may veto a referral to protect its interests, but will find it unnecessarily tedious to maintain support of a well-documented criminal regime in a 24/7 news world that expects criminal accountability for atrocities. Russia’s recent support of an UN inquiry of the government and rebels is a sign its support of Assad is not limitless. Particularly if Russia can secure a replacement Mediterranean port — in emerging ally Egypt potentially — it may support a contingent referral given that its regional interests are protected.
Within Syria, a contingent referral would have palpable effects too. Government leaders and rebel counterparts will want to avoid a stigmatizing investigation, indictment and trial as “war criminals.” Both set of leaders face credible evidence demonstrating their roles in atrocities, so there will be tremendous pressure to strike a deal, which will only get stronger as the deadline approaches.
If peace negotiations falter before the deadline, it will expose current leaders as ineffective or unwilling to broker locally desired peace, empowering moderate elements willing to do so. Even if the deadline passes, the same result will occur as an investigation will marginalize those most responsible for on-going atrocities — as it did to Charles Taylor — making room for ascendant moderate voices. Also, like Milosevic before, leaders will still pursue a peace agreement while under investigation.
Yes in the land of unicorns and rainbows, where all countries follow all the agreed upon treaties and understandings, this would work perfectly – case closed! By the way, Slobodan Miloševic didn’t end the Yugoslav wars until NATO started its bombing campaign in 1999. He was voted out of office in 2000, extradited to the international court in 2001 and was still on trial in 2006 when he died of a heart attack.
In reality, international law only works when ALL parties agree to it. If Syria was following international law it wouldn’t have used chemical weapons in the first place. President Bashar al-Assad is a dictator and he will never allow an international law solution and his BFF Russia will also never allow a solution only against Syria.
I am still open to a non-military solution so if you can offer something different than the above, feel free to express it in the comments.