New piece by EUTCC secretary general Michael M Gunter [updated on 3 September with revisions from earlier piece, To Bomb or Not to Bomb]:


On August 21, 2013 the Syrian regime apparently used chemical weapons against the opposition in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus, killing anywhere from 500-1,300 people, the numbers vary according to U.S. intelligence reports made public. While the Assad regime has long had a great deal of innocent blood on its hand and now may be guilty of using chemical weapons, this is not a sufficient reason for the United States and its Western allies to bomb Syria. Indeed, the United States has neither an intelligent entry or exit plan. In the first place, however, we are not yet even certain the Syrian regime actually used these weapons. U.S. intelligence on these matters has erred and lied to the world before.

For example, in 1998 the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan claiming that Sudan had supplied al-Qaeda with chemical weapons that had been used in its attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Later we learned that the intelligence supposedly implicating Sudan was incorrect. Similarly in the run up to the war that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and whose murders and repercussions are still being felt a decade later, the United States falsely claimed that it had incontrovertible intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which justified attacking. It turned out that U.S. intelligence was wrong again or simply lied to justify going to war.

Given such an uncertain track record, why should we be so certain that the U.S. intelligence is correct this time? And even if it is correct, does this justify bombing just because the Syrian regime has crossed a redline drawn by the United States, which then would lose face if it did not retaliate? Furthermore, some have even claimed that the Syrian opposition is the real culprit because it wanted to get the United States to topple the Assad regime which it cannot do itself.

The United States justifies its possible attack against Syria on the grounds that the Assad regime has violated international law by using chemical weapons. However, using napalm in Vietnam did not bother the United States when it was the one using such weapons. More recently, the United States simply ignored Saddam Hussein’s usage of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja on March 16, 1989 because in those days Saddam was its ally. Does anyone believe that the United States would be making all this fuss about chemical weapons if it had been the opposition in Syria that had used them?

It is patently illegal under international law for the United States to bomb Syria unless authorized to do so by the United Nation Security Council or in self defense. Neither applies to the current situation. The legal way for the United States to respond to this crisis is to negotiate with Russia to bring the Security Council on broad. The United Nations was constituted in the first place not to take military action unless all five permanent members of the Security Council concurred. Otherwise, the United Nations would simply become the tool of one great power or the other, not the arm of international justice. By not acting in this case, the United Nations might be wiser than the United States, although Obama and his supporters do not want to hear this. Barring UN action, the United States might seek Arab League support. However by bombing without such international approval, it is the United States that is violating international law, not the Assad regime.

Furthermore, if the United States bombs, it runs the risk of escalating the Syrian civil war into a regional and even international war that might involve Russia and Iran and inevitably bring in Israel, which of course has long possessed nuclear weapons illegally but which the United States never mentions because Israel is its ally. Despite assurances that it would only conduct precise surgical strikes—the resulting so-called collateral damage that would inevitably kill innocent civilians if the United States bombed Syria is yet another reason not to do it. What is more, the Assad regime would surely seek to retaliate if bombed. Tit for tat bombings could soon escalate into a much larger war that nobody in their right mind would want.

In addition, if the United States succeeded in bombing Assad into surrender, it might lead to an even worse situation from the point of view of U.S. national interest because some of the most powerful elements of the Syrian opposition are affiliated with al-Qaeda, Jablat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) being prime examples. U.S action against Assad could bring about this law of unintended consequences. If a small al-Qaeda state actually came to power in a post-Assad splintered Syria, suddenly the United States would have to exercise real self-defense against Syria similarly to what occurred when the United States armed Islamist elements in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to suffer blowback on September 11. Furthermore, how would the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq like suddenly to have an al-Qaeda statelet as a next door neighbor?

In addition, if the United States with its British and French allies strikes Syria, it will look like Western imperialism again rearing its ugly head in the Middle East. We might then open the gates of hell and bring upon ourselves even more unwanted blowback from a union of Arab nationalists with Islamic Jihadists and Salafists. Have we learned nothing about how to proceed intelligently in international affairs? How many more American lives do we want to needlessly lose, not to mention the thousands of others who have already died in Iraq and Afghanistan, before we learn that there are more intelligent ways to handle these matters?

However, the major problem for the United States is that it has not offered any valid strategy for what it would be trying to accomplish by bombing Syria other than somehow supposedly punishing the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Remember, Obama has already ruled out regime change. However without really degrading Assad’s assets, how would such a mere pin prick U.S. attack do anything but arouse his anger and determination to fight on and even retaliate against the United States?

Even worse than not having a good explanation for what it is trying to accomplish, the United States also lacks a good exit strategy for what it is proposing to do. Once the United States bombs Syria, escalation is likely and what would that supposedly lead to? Without either an intelligent entry or exit strategy, bombing Syria has all the earmarks of starting a disastrous dumb war, something we at least thought Obama was smart enough to avoid.

Fortunately, the British Parliament has voted not to support the United States. This is a truly amazing action given how powerful the British prime minister has become and how much the Parliament has declined in the past century. Showing that he still can learn quickly, U.S. president Barrack Obama has picked up on what the British Parliament did and managed to wiggle out of the trap he set for himself by drawing his redline on chemical weapons.  Throwing the decision on what to do into the hands of the U.S. Congress at least will postpone this issue and probably end up by deciding not to bomb. In the short run, this will be good.

However, in letting the U.S. Congress make the final decision, Obama is potentially giving up the power to decide on war and peace, which is one of his greatest assets. He may regret this loss of power since Iran’s nuclear weapons program looms in the near future despite Obama’s similar warnings about U.S. redlines and poses a much more serious threat to U.S. national security than Syria’s usage of chemical weapons. Egypt’s new military regime also continues to ignore U.S. calls for peace after killing more than 600 protesters. Iraq’s continuing sectarian killings and Afghanistan’s shaky future once U.S. troops pull out in 2014 also represent potentially deadly problems for the United States in the near future no matter what happens in Syria.

The history of the past century aptly demonstrates that Congress by definition is a deliberative body and ill cut out to make sudden decisions on how to react to military crises. This is precisely why, despite what the U.S. Constitution still asserts about Congress declaring war, it is really the president who now does because only he can make the quick decisions that are so absolutely crucial in the modern world.

Professor Michael M. Gunter

Tennessee Technological University


Professor Michael M. Gunter

Tennessee Technological University