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US must take substantial military action in Syria now

The United States has a moral and legal obligation to protect Syrian civilians from the murderous Assad regime and help end Syria's bloody civil war. Military action is supported by international law, historical precedent, and humanitarian mandates.

By Edward HaleyOp-ed contributor / August 29, 2013

A UN chemical weapons expert holds samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in the Ain Tarma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Aug. 29. Op-ed contributor Edward Haley writes: 'A limited US strike in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons without a larger plan to protect civilians...and end the civil war in Syria is morally bankrupt' and 'politically foolish.'

Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters


Claremont, Calif.

There is no more time to waste. The United States must take severe and sustained military action in Syria now. To wait any longer threatens the legal and moral prohibitions against mass murder that have been erected since the horrors of the Holocaust and blatantly ignores the tens of thousands of dead Syrians and the millions who have been uprooted.

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As the US and its allies prepare their response to the latest mass killings in Syria, the debate has focused not on practical next steps but on abstruse policy questions, such as the debate over the legality of punishing the Assad regime for apparently using chemical weapons. Overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad hasn’t even been a topic for discussion lately.

The Obama administration apparently means to “deter and degrade” Syria’s military capabilities. What this limited action means, of course, is that the Assad regime will hunker down, absorb the punishment, and start killing civilians again, all the while claiming to have faced down the world’s strongest power – America. The message that would be sent is: You may murder 100,000 people with artillery and bullets with impunity but you may not cause the deaths of a few hundred with chemical weapons.

A limited US strike in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons without a larger plan to protect civilians from the murderous Assad regime and end the civil war in Syria is morally bankrupt, politically foolish, and, in the end, complicit with evil.

Has Washington forgotten the horrors of World War II, of Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and Kosovo? The hubris of the Assad regime in this latest assault has handed the international community a precious opportunity to stop the slaughter and save what is left of the international prohibitions against mass murder. This mandate must be seized, not picked to pieces. The real problem is a lack of political will and moral and legal imagination, not obstacles on the ground or within the tormented ranks of the opposition and the Assad regime.

The path to effective and immediate action rests on three tenets of international law and common humanity:

1. While powerful, the UN Security Council does not possess an absolute veto over the legitimate use of military force by member states in self-defense and in response to their obligations under international law. The limits on the Security Council’s powers appear in both the UN Charter and the history of the organization. Article 2 (1) of the Charter stipulates that the organization is “based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”

This amounts to a guarantee that the vital national interests of member states take precedence over international law and organization, a verdict confirmed by the history of the United Nations. From the Korean War to the present there have only been a handful of occasions when force was authorized by the Security Council. They include the 1991 war to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait and the actions against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya that ended in his overthrow.


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