After World War I, the international community came together to outlaw some of the gravest weapons known to man through the Geneva Protocol. Amid the genocides of the 1990s, a similar multilateral treaty came into force: the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has 192 signatory states.
After the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to eliminate his chemical stockpile. Russia promised to facilitate its elimination, and the US Secretary of State John Kerry assured the world that the US-Russia deal got “100%” of chemical weapons out.
One other fateful announcement occurred around that time, too: President Obama asserted an unequivocal “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons that, if crossed, he was clear, would provoke a US military response.
To nobody’s surprise, Syria and Russia neglected the pact. In the next four years, after the US failed to enforce its own line in the sand, thousands of innocent Syrian civilians suffered and perished — and infants foamed at the mouth — as Assad deployed chemical weapons with impunity.
That is, until now.
Crossing the Line
On a Friday night, April 13, the armed forces of the US, UK, and France launched targeted missile strikes on a chemical weapons R&D facility in Damascus as well as multiple military compounds and command and control centers used to deploy such weapons around Homs — this in response to last week’s devastating chemical attack in Douma that left as many as 70 dead and at least 1,000 affected.
These forceful strikes, which will cripple the Syrian regime’s core chemical infrastructure, send, as PM Theresa May put it, a “clear signal” to Assad and other monstrous despots who massacre innocents that these war crimes are never acceptable and shall never go unpunished.
The world is imbued with disinformation and daring dictators always pressing the envelope to determine all they can get away with in order to consolidate rule and deprive citizens of basic liberties. Consequently, the importance of Western credibility in upholding international law, treaties, and humanitarian norms like the Chemical Weapons ban cannot be understated.
When President Obama retracted his red line, Assad became emboldened, and Syrians were left unprotected from VX nerve agents, sarin gas, and chlorine attacks — weapons of mass destruction. It was clear that his “win at any costs with any weapons” strategy, aided and abetted by Russia, was permissible. Western equivocation proved utterly disastrous and deadly.
Action Has Its Price Too
Secretary Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power – hardly foreign policy hawks – stressed the erosion of credibility to the President back then, and they were right.
The world witnessed the pitfalls of over-aggression in the Middle East over the past 15 years and the naïveté of suddenly installing democracy in sharply sectarian societies. But one has also seen the perils of sitting on the sidelines when it comes to enforcing basic laws and norms.
Iraq and Libya showed the costs of overreach. Syria shows the costs of inaction.
Yet, there is one glaring difference between each of these cases: in Iraq and Libya, the objective was regime change. The world is keenly aware of the “day after” problems that arose after Hussein and Gaddafi were overthrown — problems that still haunt the West and those countries to this day.
In Syria, the West is not pursuing a regime change. Prime Minister Theresa May was abundantly clear about this in her press conference on the topic. In fact, America, the UK, and France are not even seeking to push Assad back to the negotiating table or weaken his stance vis-à-vis the Syrian Free Army.
The US still very well may withdraw all troops from Syria as President Trump desires. As grotesque as it is that this brutal menace will likely stay in power with the complicit support of Russia and Iran, the reality is that the West would still rather Assad stay than unilaterally depose him and risk entering another costly quagmire.
The Trump Approach
With these precise missile strikes, the West is simply showing its resolve to punish those who use chemical weapons and weapons of the like; that this barbarity is intolerable — every single time.
Critics will decry the strikes directed by President Trump as “trigger-happy,” a diversion from domestic scandals and controversies, and lacking in any overarching strategy.
But it is important to give credit where credit is due. Since Trump has been commander-in-chief, Assad has used chemical weapons exactly twice against civilians — and twice Trump has acted forcibly.
Additionally, the President has been much tougher on Russia than the media indicates. In the April 9 edition of Time, frequent Trump critic Ian Bremmer penned an interesting column on how, despite Trump’s suspicious rhetorical affinity towards Russia and “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, the Trump administration has actually been tougher on Russia when it comes to policy than its predecessor (see recent sanctions on businesses, oligarchs, and diplomats in response to 2016 election meddling and strengthened arms agreements with Ukraine to combat Moscow-backed separatists).
To be sure, there is a myriad of unresolved questions yet to be unearthed by the Mueller investigation and one should not rush to judgment. Nevertheless, although the President’s unconventional style and puerile rhetoric have damaged both his ability to govern and image abroad, it is still necessary to recognise the sometimes distant discord between his words and his policy.
Others will lament an absence of a “grand political strategy” to end Syria’s civil war and that Trump is just doing a bit of showmanship, that his only strategy is to tweet and bomb.
To the contrary, there is indeed a long-term strategic purpose in striking regime targets: one that will hopefully reap rewards for years to come.
The international ban on chemical weapons will be enforced. For Assad and future despots who contemplate deploying such weaponry, this message should finally come through loud and clear. And, if for some reason it does not, with continued Western commitment to a policy of strategic deterrence through hard power and military force, it inevitably will. That is no insignificant strategy.
Protecting innocents from the gravest weapons of war is a worthy purpose in and of itself. No, this does not make the West “righteous,” and one should avoid thinking of these actions through the lens of sanctimony. Indeed, a more comprehensive humanitarian policy would involve creating safe zones in Syria and accepting more Syrian refugees — which remain unlikely.
But for those who believe in the rule of law and the protection of society’s most vulnerable from lethal weapons of mass murder, one should commend this revitalisation of Western credibility.
From 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister May showed clear-eyed conviction that force was justified in Syria. This was her first time to commit troops into conflict, and she did so in a principled and decisive way. One should salute the servicemen and women of America, Britain, and France for their bravery in executing this mission. Their unrivalled abilities, along with the cooperation of May, President Macron, and Trump, are promising signs for continued transatlantic collaboration amid future threats.
May’s firmness, though on a lesser scale, bears resemblance to President George HW Bush’s words in 1990, when — with memorable brevity — he declared that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait “will not stand.” Operation Desert Storm ensured that nobody dared question his resolve.
Talking the talk is well and good. Backing up the talk is far better. Tyrants of today and tomorrow should never again question the resolve of the international community when it comes to the use of chemical weapons.
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