The Missing Choice


There is a glaring hole in the choices being considered by the United States and the international community in response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack that left 1,400 dead. The only two options that are being seriously debated are action in the form of military engagement and inaction. What isn’t being discussed is how the United States and the international community can more effectively use international institutions to bring the people responsible for this act to justice.


The type of force being proposed by the Obama Administration is a limited cruise missile strike against selected targets. Even President Obama himself recognizes the dubious utility of this option, at best hoping that it weakens Bashar al-Assad’s forces and serves as a deterrent against future chemical weapon use. Doing nothing, supporters of a military strike assert, makes future U.S. threats less credible and weakens its position as a global leader.


Neither option, however, has much chance to bring about significant change and runs the risk of collectively punishing Syrians that were in no way connected to the decision to use chemical weapons or to the execution of those nefarious plans.


While today’s global set of institutions are nowhere near perfect, they provide a framework for crafting an alternative policy approach that has a greater chance for long-term success than what is currently on the table. The United States should be taking the lead to establish a set of universal global standards for responding to these types of atrocities. Unfortunately, past inaction has all but eliminated the possibility that such options could successfully be used.


Syria is one of five countries that has not signed or ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, however, it is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocols, which bans the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous and other gasses.” The taboo against chemical weapons is so strong that since the signing of the Geneva Protocols there have been almost no cases of chemical weapons use in warfare, the most notable exception being during the Iran-Iraq war. As a party to the Geneva Protocols those Syrian leaders, whether government or rebels, who planned, ordered and carried out this attack should be held responsible.


Ideally, the International Criminal Court could provide one option for bringing these individuals to justice. The appeal of the ICC is that individual leaders, military commanders and warlords would be held accountable for their actions and, thus, hopefully limit the use of collective punishment. Unfortunately, only two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have ratified the Statute and the George W. Bush administration, upon taking office, removed the U.S.’s signature.


An approach that uses effective international institutions, based on agreed upon norms, would help provide legal justification for actions against those individuals in Syria that are responsible for carrying out war crimes and ease the pressure on the United States to engage in risky, unilateral collective punishment. In an international system that supports global institutions with teeth, arbitrary and ad hoc “red lines” will no longer be needed since both norms and punishment will be established. While such a system will work more slowly than a tomahawk missile, it has a greater chance of bringing about a just and lasting peace, without embroiling the United States in another quagmire.


Analysts are fond of saying we should have done something earlier in order to have prevented the atrocities of today. The logic of this argument is that the use of military force would have been successful yesterday, but because of the delay, it is more likely to be a quagmire today. The problem, however, is that when we were trying to decide what to do yesterday we applied the same logic, thus leading to perpetual inaction.


If the United States and the rest of the global community had acted earlier to help create a strong body of international law, backed with the institutional strength necessary to respond to events like the Syria crisis, President Obama and Congress might have a broader set of choices to choose from. We can insist that our President and elected federal officials to rectify this now.


David R. Andersen-Rodgers, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Government at California State University, Sacramento.