By now there seems to be very little doubt that the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, or at least some of his military command, are guilty of using chemical weapons against their own people. However, I do very much doubt that President Obama's call for a limited but unmistakable punitive strike against his regime will accomplish much except to throw the Middle East into even greater chaos.
Yes, poison gas is horrible stuff, so much so that most of the world's nations have gotten rid of their stocks of it, especially after the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or treaty was drawn up back in 1993. But not every nation signed up, among them some African states, as well as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and while Israel signed, it has failed to ratify the agreement.
What then can or should be said or done about those nations who failed to sign?
Saddam Hussein was known to have used chemical weapons during his long war with Iran during the 1980s, and the USA, at least as far as I can remember, said nothing. It was only when Saddam used poison gas against some of his rebellious Kurds that we in the West became upset, and subsequently used this news as a part of the justification to invade Iraq because it possessed "weapons of mass destruction." Only in 2009 has Iraq gotten around to "acceding" or agreeing to the CWC.
So can nations or leaders who have not agreed to the CWC be legally held to its
provisions or restrictions? Or can we rightly punish Assad for doing what his country never agreed not to do? Certainly, we are justifiably outraged by what has happened, but is the death of the thousand or more victims of this particular attack any worse than those of the tens of thousands of civilians already claimed by Syria's ongoing civil/sectarian war?
But aside from that question, we must ask on what grounds can we claim to rightfully intervene in this conflict? Humanitarian concerns might justify it, providing that there be a UN resolution to do so. Although an immediate and direct threat to the USA could lawfully allow us to interfere unilaterally, at this point any such claim is patently ridiculous. Meanwhile, I would suggest that we think twice about involving ourselves in an internal struggle in which any Western interference will, as it did in Iraq, lead to making life nearly impossible for Christians, and eventually even for Jews, anywhere in the Middle East.
Instead, I would suggest that such finger-pointing or worse, missile-pointing on our part at the bad guys of the world for breaking treaties that they never agreed to is rather useless, or even hypocritical. I say this especially considering that the USA has the dubious distinction of being one of the few nations that has still failed to ratify the 1998 Rome Statute -- in fact, in 2002 we even rescinded our earlier signature -- that established the International Criminal Court. This treaty was designed explicitly to try, convict, and punish people like Bashar al Assad and others, who like him, as heads of state, are unlikely to ever be brought to justice in their own countries.
I will leave it to the reader to speculate as to why our government opted out of something that is so sorely needed in this world, despite the fact that we were among the first to agree to or even insist upon holding the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders and the trials of the Japanese military commanders after World War II. Admittedly, the whole idea and functioning of the ICC remains a work in progress. Instead, I will only suggest that President Obama, as constitutional lawyer who in 2009 at least pledged to cooperate with the ICC, needs to put first things first before we wade into a conflict in which, however things turn out, we are likely to be the loser.