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.
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.
The limitations on the power of Security Council are only emphasized by Article 51, which explicitly authorizes the use of force in self-defense, which under existing international legal doctrine includes measures taken to protect the vital security interests of member states. If there were ever any doubts that a murderous civil war in Syria directly threatens the vital interests of the US and its allies, they have been removed by the spread of fighting to Lebanon, the destabilization of Jordan and Iraq as a result of a waterfall of Syrian refugees, and the strengthening of radical elements within the Syrian opposition.
2. It is immoral and illegal under international law to kill civilians. The Geneva Conventions and international human rights law prohibit the killing of civilians in and outside combat areas. The offenses of the Assad regime and, in some instances, of the opposition, amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since World War I, heads of state and government officials have repeatedly been charged, convicted, and in some cases executed for these offenses. Nations thus have a legal and moral right – and obligation – to stop such massacres of civilians.
3. It is illegal under international law to use chemical weapons under any circumstances. As of June 2013, 189 of 196 nations had signed or acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. That Syria is one of the few states that has refused to accept its limits says more about the Syrian government than anything else. It also makes clear that Syria’s leaders are accountable before the world community for any use of these horrific weapons.
Together these anchors of law and humanity provide the legal and moral basis for immediate action in Syria that would be powerful and long-lasting enough to stop the killing and open the way to peace. Doing more to end the slaughter in Syria means taking advantage of Assad’s brutality to undertake the following:
1. An air campaign based on the successful actions in the Balkans, especially Kosovo, which occurred without the consent of the Security Council. The military air strikes were sustained, fierce, and required no outside troops on the ground. The Obama administration has made it clear that the US military is prepared to carry out strikes on key Assad regime targets.
2. An incentive to make peace created by a generous international aid agreement available only to those Syrian parties who cooperate in good faith in making and sustaining the peace. This will require at a minimum the support of the European Union, the US, Japan, Syria's neighbors such as Jordan and Turkey, and the oil-rich Arab Gulf states.
3. An international peace supervisory force from countries that are supportive of an inclusive, peaceful Syria. The US and its allies would provide communications and logistical support.
4. Negotiations between all Syrian parties.
5. The convening of an international war crimes tribunal to investigate, bring to trial, and punish all those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including those in the opposition.
The US must seize the moral moment and, with a coalition of allies and regional partners, do what is required. As the only superpower in the world, it has a moral obligation to act swiftly and effectively.
America says it stands as a bulwark for human rights. The time for dithering is gone. The time for action is upon us.
Edward Haley is director of the Center for Human Rights Leadership and W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of International Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College.