Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: U.S. and its Allies Believe Assad Used Chemical Weapons (But What Does it Mean?)

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A little mix-up from our normal schedule. When I saw this article in the NYT this morning I could not concentrate on any economics related news, I will put something out on that front tomorrow.

“The White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.

But it said more conclusive evidence was needed before Mr. Obama would take action, referring obliquely to both the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence in the march to war in Iraq and the ramifications of any decision to enter another conflict in the Middle East.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment, which officials said was based on the testing of soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been wounded.”

“In a statement last summer, Mr. Obama did not offer a technical definition of his “red line” for taking action, but said it was when “we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” In Jerusalem last month, he said proof that Syria had used such [chemical] weapons would be a “game changer” for American involvement.”

“The timing of the White House disclosure also suggested the pressures it is facing. It came the same day that the British government said that it had “limited but persuasive” evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and two days after an Israeli military intelligence official asserted that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons.

In a letter to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, several weeks ago calling for a United Nations investigation, Britain laid out evidence of the attacks in Aleppo and near Damascus as well as an earlier one in Homs.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, reported that dozens of victims were treated at hospitals for shortness of breath, convulsions and dilation of the pupils, common symptoms of exposure to chemical warfare agents. Doctors reported eye irritation and fatigue after close exposure to the patients.

Citing its links to contacts in the Syrian opposition, Britain said there were reports of 15 deaths in the suburban Damascus attack and up to 10 in Aleppo, where the government and rebels have each accused the other of using chemical weapons.”

“White House officials gave no indication of what Mr. Obama might do, except to say that any American action would be taken in concert with its allies.

While lawmakers from both parties swiftly declared that the president’s red line had been breached, they differed on what he should do about it.”

And I honestly could have quoted the whole article; I highly suggest you read it if you are interested in this matter (and if you made it this far you are, so go read it).

Before I dive into the article, a little background on why chemical warfare is different from conventional warfare. “Chemical warfare is different from the use of conventional weapons or nuclear weapons because the destructive effects of chemical weapons are not primarily due to any explosive force.”

This means that chemical weapons can be detonated without the natural warning that conventional and nuclear weapons carry (the explosion). Chemical weapons can be silent, indiscriminate killers, and have the potential to cause mass destruction (yes chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction).

The U.S. unilaterally denounced the use of chemical weapons in 1969, ratified the Geneva Convention in 1975, and ratified the Chemical Weapons convention in 1997. The U.S. has put a lot of effort into winding down chemical weapon stockpiles both at home and abroad. These are just some of the reasons why a small number of deaths (around 25), in a civil war that has claimed over 70,000 lives, is a “red line” issue.

Why, after appearing to have his “red line” crossed, is the Obama administration’s response unclear?

Most immediately, I would think of the shortcomings of conventional warfare. The Iraq war was costly, and recent sectarian violence in Iraq shows how unsustainable “nation building” can be (if it is imposed from the outside, accompanied by war, or generally pushed in an unrealistically small time-frame; the process of democratization and modernization is gradual and must come from a countries own citizenry).

There also needs to be concrete proof that Assad used these weapons. There are some who would argue that the opposition has reason to use chemical weapons. If the opposition made it appear that Assad used the weapons, it could tip the fight in its favor. While this is a morally reprehensible thought, “all is fair in love and war”. Realistically it is unlikely that the Syrian opposition, which has been hampered by an arms disadvantage throughout the 2 year civil war, has access to such weapons, even if it wanted to use them to draw outside support. Still, this unlikely scenario must be ruled out before the U.S. gets further involved in the war.    

The Obama administration has said any response would be carried out in coordination with our allies—good! But how much of the response is going to fall on the U.S? France and Britain have been particularly outspoken about EU intervention in Syria. However, a recent article highlights that U.S. military expenditure accounts for about 75% of the NATO budget. The U.S. may want its allies to take a larger role, and our allies may want to take a larger role, but unless leaders can push military expansion in a time when austerity has constrained spending even on important social programs (which I am not certain is the right thing to do or should be these countries top priority given constrained resources), it looks like America will likely be footing most of the cost of any coordinated effort.

But let us not forget our recent $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The stated purpose of such a deal was to deter a nuclear Iran, but such geopolitical allies would almost certainly have to play a significant role in any coordinated effort to support the Syrian opposition militarily.

Also, Russia and China, Syria’s two largest allies who have continually blocked UNSC intervention, have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use of chemical weapons. If there is evidence Assad used these weapons, China and Russia may allow a UN military intervention, ending an international stalemate almost as old as the war itself.

If allies in NATO, the Middle-East, and around the world (UN intervention) pitch in, the situation in Syria could change swiftly and drastically.

There are no easy answers. I would be shocked if the U.S. attempted unilateral and conventional warfare in response to this news (they have explicitly stated they won’t so I’m not exactly going out on a limb with that prediction). Likely, if it is confirmed that Assad indeed used chemical weapons, the U.S. and its allies would for the first time supply military aid to the opposition. NATO and strategic allies in the Middle-East would likely take up the majority of any ground forces deployed.

It will be interesting to see how this recent news plays out. The Syrian civil war has been stuck in a “hurting stalemate”, perpetuating a humanitarian crisis and causing regional instability. It appears that there may finally be evidence that demands multilateral international intervention that ultimately ends the war.

And when the war does end, a whole new host of issues will emerge…

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2 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: U.S. and its Allies Believe Assad Used Chemical Weapons (But What Does it Mean?)

  1. Pingback: The (Real Beginning of the) End of Team America World Police Part 3(? 4? 5?, I’ve Lost Count…) | Normative Narratives

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