US Secretary of State John Kerry set out in considerable detail on Friday the evidence for why the United States believes Syrian government forces were responsible for this month’s horrific chemical-weapon attacks on rebel-held portions of the Damascus suburbs. But he gave less detail about the reasons for the military response that by all accounts seems imminent. President Obama did not elaborate in remarks delivered a short time later.
The gist of Kerry’s rationale for military action is that Syria seems to have breached an important and long-established international norm against the use of chemical weapons. These weapons indeed are despicable, as made vivid by the ghastly videos and photos of their dead and dying victims. Stopping any further use is a laudable aim. And drawing the line on chemical weapons will help to deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction.
But it is unclear how the US government plans to proceed beyond the military action that both Obama and Kerry have said would be limited. Kerry talked about holding President Bashar al-Assad “accountable”—a term more appropriate for the International Criminal Court (which the United States studiously avoids mentioning in the Syrian context) than military action. Others have talked about punishing Assad—a dubious goal given his demonstrated willingness to accept all manner of cruelty toward his people and the rapid destruction of his state.
Moreover, the norm against using chemical weapons is not the only international standard at stake. There is also international law prohibiting deliberately and indiscriminately killing civilians, which the Syrian government has flouted on a much larger scale. Against the 1,429 people whom Kerry said were killed by the chemical attack outside Damascus are the tens of thousands of civilians whom Syrian troops and militia have killed in two-and-a-half years of war. Armed opposition groups have also committed their share of indiscriminate shelling and serious abuses against suspected government supporters.
Upholding the norm that civilians should never be gassed is important. So is upholding the law against this broader killing of civilians—which Obama previously described as “a core national security interest.” As the United States prepares to lead a military attack in Syria, the campaign will be measured by its consequences. Will it enhance protection for all Syrian civilians, regardless of how they are attacked? Or does the United States have other plans for doing that? Neither Obama nor Kerry has said.
Kerry was eloquent when he said: “History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.” Reinforcing the “red line” against chemical attacks is certainly important. But if the effect is to retain a “green light” for Assad’s massive slaughter of civilians by other means, it will be a hollow victory. A military response may not be the answer, but what is the plan for these other victims? That’s a question that should be answered—by not only the United States but also Russia, the Arab League, and the many others who are doing so little to help. For the countless civilians whose lives are still in jeopardy from conventional weapons, will it be more of turning a blind eye?