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Six Reasons to Oppose an Attack on Syria

09/06/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013
  • Stephen Zunes Professor of Politics and Chair of Mid-Eastern Studies, University of San Francisco

The decision by President Barack Obama to first seek congressional approval of any US military action against Syria is good and important, not only on constitutional grounds but because it gives the American people an opportunity to stop it.

Here are some of the top talking points that should be raised before members of Congress as to why authorizing US airstrikes on Syria would be a bad idea:

1) A US military attack would be illegal
According to the United Nations Charter, Article 2(4) makes it illegal for any country to use force or threaten to use force against another country and Article 2(7) prohibits intervention in an internal or domestic dispute in another country. The only legal use of military force is self-defense if one's country is under direct attack (Article 51) or in the event that the UN Security Council determines all peaceful means have been exhausted and specifically authorizes such use of force (Article 42.) Having one country violate international law to punish another country for violating international law makes little sense. Furthermore, given that the UN Charter is an international treaty that has been signed and ratified by the United States, it is to be treated as supreme law, according to Article VI of the Constitution. As a result, attacking Syria would therefore also be illegal under US law, even if authorized by Congress.

2) There is little strategic rationale
Bombing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles - some of which have been placed deliberately in crowded civilian neighborhoods - would release large amounts of toxic gasses into the air, which could kill many thousands of people. In addition, given that chemical weapons can be deployed on planes, missiles, mortars and other ways, there is no realistic way of eliminating their delivery systems either. Furthermore, military strikes unlikely would be an effective deterrent: The threat of a US attack in the event that the Syrian regime would use chemical weapons, first put forward by Obama more than a year ago, failed to deter last month's attacks. Even if subjected to missile strikes in the coming weeks, there is little question that the regime would be willing to use them again, and on a more massive scale, if its survival was threatened. Indeed, punitive airstrikes rarely have worked and often have led to more serious acts of retaliation.

3) Military intervention likely would lead to more death and destruction
History is replete with examples of supposedly "limited" military actions that dramatically escalated. In addition, empirical studies have demonstrated repeatedly that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, such military intervention often triggers a "gloves off" mentality that dramatically escalates the violence on both sides, with the government believing they no longer had anything to lose and the rebels less prone to negotiate or compromise.

4) The United States has little credibility regarding chemical weapons
The leading administration and Congressional backers for military action--John Kerry, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, among others--categorically insisted in 2002 that the Iraqi regime still had large and dangerous stockpiles of chemical weapons. Though their current charges regarding the Syrian regime are probably true, the false statements they and other top US officials made about Iraq have severely weakened US credibility regarding alleged threats from chemical weapons. In addition, the United States has sought repeatedly to undermine multilateral approaches to the control of chemical weapons and weaken its enforcement agencies, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And, in 2007, the United States blocked a Syrian effort at the United Nations to impose a regionwide ban on chemical weapons and other non-conventional weapons, apparently because it would have required that U.S. allies Israel and Egypt would also rid themselves of such weapons.

5) A military attack likely would strengthen the Syrian regime
Whatever strategic losses the Syrian regime may suffer from a US attack could be more than made up by political gains. Any time a country is attacked from the outside, there is a rallying-around-the-flag effect. President Bashar Assad and his father have for decades successfully manipulated the Syrian people's strong sense of nationalism into support for their rule. US support for the 46 years of Israeli occupation of the southwestern part of their country, US attacks on Syrian forces in Lebanon during the 1980s, and threats of "regime change" during the Bush era has led to enormous resentment, even by opponents of the regime. Despite its horrific repression, the regime has convinced millions of Syrians that it is the last noble bastion of secular Arab nationalism resisting both Islamist extremism and Western imperialism. A US attack would play right into that narrative.

6) The United States is isolated in the international community
In addition to not having the requisite support in the United Nations Security Council, the Obama administration has very little support internationally for a unilateral strike. Despite the Syrian regime having very few remaining defenders in the international community, it appears that only France - the former colonial power - is seriously considering directly supporting U.S. military action. Unlike the 1999 bombing of Serbia, which had the support of most NATO countries, and the 2011 bombing of Libya, which had the support of most of the Arab League, neither of these organizations supports a U.S. bombing of Syria. Having the United States once again engaged in a war against a much smaller country on the far side of the world in violation of international legal norms can only strengthen anti-American sentiments and further isolate the US as a rogue superpower, regardless of how horrific the actions of the targeted regime which may have prompted it. The result will be a further decline in the credibility and influence of the United States diplomatically.

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