Will U.S. Attack Syria? A Primer on the Rationale

Will U.S. Attack Syria? A Primer on the Rationale

By Alexis Simendinger - August 28, 2013

The Obama administration stood poised Tuesday to attack Syria within days, setting off anxieties that stretched from Damascus to Wall Street.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, traveling in Indonesia, said U.S. military forces are ready to carry out the commander-in-chief’s orders, working off plans the Pentagon presented to President Obama over the weekend. At a news conference, Hagel suggested pending intelligence would bolster the administration’s decision-making. “Until we get all the facts and we're absolutely confident of what happened in Syria, I'm not going to comment on consequences of actions or inactions,” he said.

In Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad vowed to defend against American missiles and air power.

Escalating tensions with Syria sent blue-chip stocks plummeting to two-month lows.

In Congress, statements from lawmakers exposed divisions over the possible unintended regional consequences of military strikes, the utility of retaliatory action by the United States, and the value of securing approval from the legislative branch ahead of any military action.

Sen. John McCain, who has argued for direct and sustained U.S. intervention in Syria for more than a year, said he spoke with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and conveyed his concern that if Obama opts for limited use of precision missile strikes, “it may be counterproductive” because it may not change the regional vulnerabilities blooming because of the ongoing turmoil.

“This is turning into a regional conflict and now is the time to reverse it,” McCain warned during a CNN interview.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron called Parliament into session Thursday to debate a possible military response in Syria. French President Francois Hollande, in a Tuesday speech, vowed to “punish” Syria for the use of chemical weapons and hinted that sidestepping the United Nations Security Council might be appropriate.

“International law must evolve with its times. It can't be a pretext for allowing massacres to be perpetrated," Hollande said.

The White House was careful Tuesday to discuss “options” for international response against Syria, short of sending U.S. troops into a ground war. What follows is an outline of the issues and considerations in play:

What’s the international legal justification for any U.S.-led military strikes against Syria?

The administration believes the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention grant powers to respond to evidence that on Aug. 21, Assad’s forces used weapons of mass destruction against the Syrian people during the country’s long-running civil conflict. Syria is a signatory to the Geneva Convention and Protocols, which establish the international legal basis and rules for conventional warfare, but the country is not among the more than 150 signatories to the international Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer, or use of chemical weapons by states adhering to the convention. The parties to the CWC are expected to help enforce it.

Without independent verification, little is known about the size, condition or location of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, a Congressional Research Service report explained Aug. 20. “The regime of President Bashar al-Assad reportedly has stocks of nerve (sarin, VX) and blister (mustard gas) agents, possibly weaponized into bombs, shells, and missiles, and associated production facilities,” CRS told lawmakers. “Little is known from open sources about the current size and condition of the stockpile.”

During the more than two-year-old civil war, Western authorities have conceded that little is certain about Assad’s ongoing operational control over military officers and non-Syrian allies in the field fighting in proximity to hidden stockpiles of lethal chemical weapons.

What are the U.S. goals behind a coordinated response to the Aug. 21 deaths in Syria?

The administration argued Tuesday that if the international community did not respond immediately to the deaths of civilians and children near Damascus, the world would in essence be inviting similar attacks by the Assad regime. Thus, Obama’s near-term goals appear to be punishment and deterrence. The Pentagon’s potential targets inside Syria reportedly include the offensive equipment and deployment mechanisms that make chemical weapons possible and a threat.[iv]

“The use of chemical weapons on the scale that we saw on August 21 cannot be ignored,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “It must be responded to, because to allow it to happen without a response would be to invite further use of chemical weapons and to have that international standard dissolved.”

Carney’s repeated references to chemical gassing “on the scale” recently reported was a carefully crafted phrase intended to distinguish the latest alleged poisoning of hundreds or thousands of Syrians from the dozen or so WMD attacks reported previously by rebel fighters. The administration confirmed the use of chemical attacks in Syria earlier this summer, and responded by committing additional military support to the Syrian opposition fighters.

The White House was more definitive Tuesday about goals the president is not seeking through retaliatory strikes. Obama is not targeting Assad for death, according to the White House. Obama is not seeking “regime change,” which means the administration envisions Assad would remain in power after any missiles and/or bombs hit targets in Syria, despite repeated calls for Assad to step down.

Military strikes are not conceived as a means through which Syria’s chemical weapons would be located, secured, removed or destroyed for good -- although those are all U.S and international aims, according to Carney. In addition, the United States continues to believe the Syrian conflict will only conclude via a political and negotiated settlement, rather than through military force, the White House spokesman said Tuesday.

What evidence does the U.S. have that Assad and his allies attacked Syrians with WMD on Aug. 21?

The administration insisted Tuesday that “there is no doubt” that chemical weapons were responsible for the deaths, and that “there is very little doubt” that Assad was responsible. Assad has denied the accusations.

U.N. inspectors are in Damascus to gather independent forensic evidence. They paused in their work Tuesday for safety reasons, but were expected to resume their investigations Wednesday. Although the White House pressed last week to get U.N. inspectors to the locations of the attacks, the U.S. tone shifted dramatically Tuesday. “Since that has been already discovered, I'm not sure that they need to fulfill their mandate,” Carney said of the continuing U.N. efforts to verify the use of WMD.

The administration’s rock-solid certainty that Assad is responsible for deploying poisonous gas comes from public and nonpublic information. Some of the certainty appeared to be supposition Tuesday, but the president’s spokesman accused skeptics of being “fanciful.”

“We see no evidence of any alternative scenario,” Carney said when asked by reporters if the administration was “a hundred percent sure” of its assertions.

“The regime has already used chemical weapons in this conflict against its own people on a small scale,” he continued. “It has maintained firm control of the stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria. It has the rockets and the rocket capability that were employed in this chemical weapons attack. And it was engaged in an assault against these neighborhoods prior to the use of chemical weapons and in the aftermath of the use of these chemical weapons. You would have to be credulous indeed to entertain an alternative scenario that can -- could only be fanciful.”

Carney said the administration would soon lay out its case against Assad in a declassified report, and in the context of the Aug. 21 deaths. “The intelligence community is working on an assessment, and we will have conclusions that can be provided to the public, available this week,” he said.

Are there other possible or plausible explanations for the deployment of poison gas near Damascus on Aug. 21?

The administration says no. But alternative hypotheses include: rogue use of chemical agents by factions inside the Assad military or supporting the regime but not under the president’s direct orders; release of toxic gas by rebel forces eager to pull the international community into the conflict; or accidental release of chemical agents amid shelling and fighting in the suburbs near Damascus.

Could Obama order military action without first securing a resolution of support from the U.N. Security Council?

Yes. The administration believes such Security Council support is unlikely because of opposition from China and Russia. General support for a retaliatory response to Syria has been voiced by the Arab League, and in world governments that included Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia and Israel. The White House released a list Tuesday night of dozens of foreign leaders consulted by Obama, Vice President Biden, and by members of the Cabinet since Aug. 21 (some were called more than once).

Would strikes against Syria take place while U.N. inspectors are still on the ground there?

It is unlikely.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Obama Is No Clinton
Larry Elder · November 13, 2014
Bret Stephens' Call for Robust U.S. Foreign Policy
Peter Berkowitz · November 16, 2014
A President Who Is Hearing Things
Richard Benedetto · November 12, 2014
Red Tide Rising
Charles Kesler · November 9, 2014

Alexis Simendinger

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter