We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the onset of World War I. One of the lessons of that horrendous war was that chemical weapons cause inhumane suffering and death and that they are not reliable weapons. Their effectiveness depends on which way the wind is blowing, a situation subject to change. After the war, the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare was banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. More recently, the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, and today 189 countries are parties to this treaty.
But the deadliness and unreliability of chemical weapons were not the only lessons of World War I. A far more important lesson is that a war can take on a life of its own. No one expected that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria Hungary would lead to a world war, but that is the way it worked out. The assassination set in motion a chain of events leading to all-out war, in which national leaders felt bound to their allies and were unwilling to back down. It was a war that no one wanted, but one that took four years to halt and resulted in 37 million casualties, including 16 million deaths.
The Syrian civil war has been going on since spring 2011, but suddenly it has taken on new potential for morphing into a regional or global conflagration. President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be the crossing of a red line. When leaders of superpower countries say such things, they are to be taken as warnings to less powerful states to behave accordingly or face serious consequences. Someone in Syria appears to have used chemical weapons, and the US government is expressing certainty that it was the Syrian government. Thus, for US leaders, the red line has been crossed.
What does this mean? It means, if true, that a tacit code of international behavior has been violated. A weaker state, rather than accepting the warning of the superpower state, committed a prohibited act. From the perspective of the superpower state, someone must be punished or the superpower's credibility will be destroyed. The crossing of red lines must be punished by military means, or so goes the argument of President Obama and his administration. Are they right?
There are serious problems with this argument.
First, it is not confirmed that the offending party that used the chemical weapons was the government of Syria. The Russian government has suggested that the chemical warfare agents were used by Syrian opposition forces. President Obama was initially rushing to a US military attack and not taking the necessary time and caution to assure that the offending party was the party it warned.
Second, if the US were to attack Syria with missiles, as President Obama initially intended to do, it would not be in accord with international law and would thus be illegal. All countries have a responsibility under the United Nations Charter to act in accord with international law. The Charter prohibits the use of force, such as missile strikes, except in self-defense against an actual attack, or unless authorized by the UN Security Council. The proposed US missile attack against the Syrian government fits neither of these criteria.
Third, it puts the perceived credibility of a superpower leader, no matter how ill-advised, ahead of the importance of maintaining peace or, as the UN Charter states, "ending the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…."
Fourth, US missile strikes against Syria are unlikely to improve conditions for the Syrian people and are likely to cause them serious harm.
Fifth, there are other means of punishing the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons (if this is proven) that do not require the use of military force. One such means would be organizing an international boycott on the sale or transfer of military equipment to the government of Syria. Another means would be to refer the evidence on the use of chemical weapons to the International Criminal Court, an institution that can impose criminal liability on national leaders for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Once acts of war are commenced, all promises become subject to being broken. US leaders are promising "no boots on the ground," but can they keep that promise or will they if things start to go very wrong? What if a US attack on Syria results in a Syrian attack on US warships or US embassies in the region? What if it results in a Syrian or Iranian attack on Israel? What if it brings Russia into the war on the side of Syria, and pits the US and Russia, both nuclear-armed giants, against each other?
Is it possible that attempting to assure the credibility of President Obama, a Nobel Peace Laureate, through military strikes, could lead to stumbling into a new world war? No one knows what may happen. The Middle East is a tinder box. Throwing a lighted match or a missile strike into that incendiary environment for reasons of credibility is an act of hubris, which could have fiery and tragic consequences that no one wants and none of our experts or political leaders can foresee, just as was the case when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was stuck down by assassination in 1914.
For now, we must consider it most fortunate that Secretary of State Kerry made a seemingly offhand remark to a reporter's question about what could lead the US to refrain from a military attack. Kerry responded that a US military attack could be avoided if Syria were to turn over its stocks of chemical weapons for disposal. Russian leaders quickly pursued this course of action and convinced Syrian President Assad to commit to turning over his chemical weapons stocks. Thus, diplomacy may have averted the far more dangerous and deadly resort to acts of war by the US and, at the same time, reinforced international law and prevented the possibility of future chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. Such a path makes the march to an unintended world war far less likely.