7 April 2017   Leave a comment

We are getting more information about the US missile strike on a Syrian airbase and the commentary on the strike is confusing and conflicting.  All the commentary misses the central point of military action. Every military action should be guided by one single and overriding concern:  does this action bring us closer to bringing a war to an end?  The air strike does not meet this objective.  But it does meet another objective, which is justifiable but not related to the conflict itself.  If this strike had the single intent of sending a clear message to the Syrian regime–and to the world at large–that the use of banned chemical weapons will not increase the chances of victory, then it can be justified on those terms if it turns out that the Syrian government does not use such weapons again. We will see if that outcome is realized.

But in terms of the Syrian civil war, and its attendant international dimensions, the strike itself does not bring us closer to an end to the violence, and all the commentary I have read and heard seems to miss this point.  And some of the commentary distorts what actually happened.  The New York Times ran an article by Mark Landler entitled “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First.”  I sincerely doubt that this headline is accurate.  If moral imperatives were the driving force, then the current administration would not be restricting refugees from Syria.

Moral considerations have been conspicuously absent in Mr. Trump’s statements about Syria and Iraq until his statement yesterday.  The current administration said nothing after 300 civilians were killed in Mosul, Iraq after a US airstrike.  I wish to be very clear:  I am not equating the chemical attack in Syria with the US strike in Mosul.  The Mosul attack appears to have been unintentional and was not conducted with banned weapons of war.  These distinctions are critically important to us, but they matter little to the innocents who were killed and their families.  We will wait for the US military to conduct its investigation of the Mosul attack, and I am fully confident in the US military’s willingness to issue a truthful report and to punish those involved if the attack occurred because of negligence.  But if morality were a primary concern of the current administration then I would have expected a sincere apology and a profound expression of remorse by the US after the Mosul attack.  An honest heart is not selective.

The attack also comes as the US is increasing its military commitment to overthrowing Assad (see this blog post of 31 March 2017).  That objective is not part of the so-called “war on terror”.  The attack in Syria was rather an expression of realpolitik and should be assessed in terms of whether the national interest of the US was advanced in Syria.  On this issue, the air strike makes very little sense.  The US is in Syria and Iraq to defeat Daesh (the Islamic State).  The states who share this same objective and are actively involved in fighting Daesh are the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran.  But these states have all condemned the sir strike.  In other words, the realpolitik allies of the US have been driven away by the US action.  Other states have praised the US action, but these states do not have armed forces on the ground fighting Daesh.  If one wishes to play realpolitik, then the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But realpolitik will not solve the problem of the Syrian civil war.  The US is now at war with the Syrian state: an armed attack is a sufficient condition to initiate a state of war.  If the objective of US military action in Syria is regime change, then we need to know a lot more about how the US will define “peace” if Assad is removed.  Which of the various constituencies in Syria will be involved in this definition?  We know that overthrowing a government is possible, and the US has been involved in many of those operations in the past:  Mossadegh in Iran in 1953,  Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1961, Diem in Vietnam in 1963, and Hussein in Iraq in 2003. In every single one of those cases, the failure of the US to anticipate the turmoil it unleashed led to even greater problems for American national interests.

The air attack also raises serious constitutional issues.  This war was decided upon by Mr. Trump and Mr. Trump alone.  It is not covered by the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was passed by the Congress after the 11 September 2001 attacks.  That resolution reads as follows:

“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

There is no evidence that the Syrian government was in any way involved in the 11 September attacks.  Congress was not consulted–it was merely informed.  The attack on Syria may  be covered by the War Powers Act, in which case Mr. Trump can conduct military operations for 60 days before the Constitution requires a Congressional declaration.  But the US ground troops in Syria have already been operating in Syria for over 60 days.  The clock did not start ticking with yesterday’s air attack.

Ending the suffering of the Syrian people is a legitimate interest of the US.  There is as of yet little evidence that the air strikes have moved us closer to that objective.  Indeed, I suspect that we may have moved further away.

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Posted April 7, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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