Rebel fighters in Damascus, Syria

The increasing consensus, despite the lack of incontrovertible proof, is that a chemical attack took place in Syria that killed hundreds of innocent people and the Syrian government was behind it. It is impossible to be one hundred percent certain that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government launched a chemical attack, but, since it is known that Syria has a stockpile of chemical weapons, this event demonstrates that Syria could use them again if there is no response to the suspected chemical attack.

The potential war plan being described by anonymous or unnamed officials to United States press is that the attack would be short and sharp. It would be limited in scope and duration. For a few days, there would be military strikes on targets, and, according to White House spokesperson, there would be no “regime change focus.” However, does anyone believe that once the bombs start dropping, especially if a coalition backs the strikes, that forces will fall back after days of strikes and Assad will be allowed to remain in power?

In any case, let’s presume for a moment that there is absolutely no reason to doubt that Assad decided to gas his own people and the world is now presented with the reality that a horrific chemical attack took place and something needs to be done. What should happen? And what should happen if one is a progressive? What should happen if one is a humanitarian?

Ari Melber, who filled in for Lawrence O’Donnell on “The Last Word” on MSNBC last night, asked this question to Joe Stork, who is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

MELBER: …What do you think is the right sort of proper humanitarian or progressive response to what we`re learning?

STORK: Well, I think if there is a military intervention on the part of the United States there are two key things. First of all, the targeting and the means of attack and so forth have to be precisely designed to minimize, absolutely minimize civilian casualties. That includes civilians who may be living in Assad-controlled territories. And they include civilians who support Assad in fact.

Secondly, the targeting should also be aimed at protecting civilians to the extent possible. It shouldn’t just be about punishment. It should also be about protecting civilians. The 1,000 or so people killed last week are on top of 100,000 people, most of them civilians, most of them at the hands of government forces over the last two years. And that`s what really needs to be kept in mind.

Based off the answer, Stork apparently has no problem with further military action, such as airstrikes, being a part of a humanitarian or progressive response so long as the targeting and means of attack are designed to minimize civilian casualties and the targeting aims to protect civilians.

There are few wars or acts of military intervention that have not been justified by leaders claiming the actions are to be undertaken for humanitarian purposes. Western countries like the United States, United Kingdom or France are going to say they support escalated intervention to save lives, not to kill people. However, that does not mean that since the goal is to save lives that lives will be saved and that it won’t ultimately have a negative impact on civilians. What will happen after the bombs begin to drop and what will happen when the bombs finally stop dropping are two key issues that need to be considered before cautiously supporting additional military intervention.

Are Progressives Humanitarians? 

Progressives are not necessarily humanitarians. They are not necessarily antiwar nor do they necessarily favor peace. Progressives who believe in the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” really believe in a military doctrine cloaked in human rights advocacy.

Numerous progressives have supported and, in fact, defended Obama’s use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen and have not engaged in any massive protest in response to Obama’s escalation and continuation of the war in Afghanistan. It is now supposedly nearing its conclusion, when US forces will be withdrawn, but how important is it to progressives that Obama end the war in Afghanistan sooner than later?

Journalist Jeremy Scahill produced a project, which included a book and a film, called Dirty Wars that highlights the human impact of a policy of treating the world as a battlefield to fight the “war on terrorism.” Yet, what progressive groups aggressively promoted the project and demanded that Obama answer for acts occurring on his watch?

Currently, one cannot equate progressive with humanitarian by saying, “What should a progressive or humanitarian do?” Because libertarians are just as much humanitarians as progressives, these days, which is not to say that they actually are humanitarians but that ideological groups in establishment politics in the United States are not really humanitarian at all. Business as usual would not be happening if these political factions were humanitarian.

No one wants to be told they are not humanitarian. That suggests they favor the loss of innocent life in some cases and do not care about human rights. However, if protecting human rights and innocent lives, no matter the situation, is not top priority, one must face the fact that they are not humanitarians.

(Note: There are two threads here – what progressives should support and what humanitarians should support. Though I have suggested not all progressives are humanitarians, the point I wanted to make has been made so let’s assume for the rest of the post that progressives desire a humanitarian response and, when it comes to what happens next with Syria, they are humanitarians.)

Can a Humanitarian Support Further Military Action in Syria? 

If one does consider themselves a humanitarian, is military action a reasonable response to a chemical attack?

Let’s consider what Amnesty International’s recommendation for action is in the aftermath. The international human rights group has not called for military action by an international coalition but for the “grave situation” to be referred by the United Nations to the International Criminal Court:

Any use of chemical weapons may amount to a war crime or a crime against humanity. Even though Syria is one of only a handful of countries that haven’t signed or acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention – which bans the use, production, stockpiling or transfer of such weapons – all states have a shared responsibility to investigate and prosecute such crimes under international law, no matter where they are committed.

Forming joint international investigation and prosecution teams would improve the chances of effective arrests and prosecutions. If any of those responsible were to attempt to seek safe haven abroad, under universal jurisdiction they must be arrested and investigated. UN Security Council members should step up and lead this effort.

This may not stop any of the violence, but neither will launching strikes on targets in Syria. If the intent of military action is to punish Assad and not bring about regime change (which would seem inevitable if additional military action is taken by a coalition), alleged chemical attacks could be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation and Syrian military commanders and officials responsible could be punished through the court. This is an option instead of military action that a humanitarian could support.

Countries Could Stop Arming the Opposition to Protect Civilians

If protecting civilians is a priority, countries, including the US, could stop providing arms, training and other forms of assistance to the rebels and work to bring about a ceasefire. The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) actually found that “arming the opposition” is the worst form of military intervention. That is actually what has been going on for months now.

CIVIC warned in a report in February of this year that this option presented the “greatest risk of civilian harm.” The group highlighted how the armed opposition was “fragmented” and lacked a “unified command structure,” increasing the possibility that the opposition would not “comply with international humanitarian law.” The group found that “the uncontrolled provision of arms” carried “risks of causing considerable harm to civilians, including post-conflict.”

“End users are difficult to vet, while the weapons themselves are nearly impossible to track,” the report concluded. “Both sides in Syria are heavily armed already. Multiple states have already undertaken this option in limited form. Thus, providing additional arms to the rebel forces may not make an appreciable difference in ending the conflict.”

While CIVIC essentially determined limited airstrikes would be the easiest politically and the least worst option when it came to the possibility of civilian casualties, there were a number of issues acknowledged in the report that should give any humanitarian thinking of supporting military airstrikes pause. For example, a second or third order consequence could be the Assad regime retaliates with more chemical weapons.

“By making the regime more desperate as it sees its military capability degraded, will airstrikes merely move the conflict into another, potentially more brutal, phase rather than solving it?” the report asked. “Will it lead to responses or retaliation from other states or groups or destabilize other states? For example, a significant reduction of Syrian air and missile capabilities might force the Assad regime to conduct a “scorched earth” approach using ground combat forces, substantially increasing the risk to civilian populations.”

Also, what will fill the void if strikes lead to the collapse of the Assad regime, even if that is not the intended outcome of limited airstrikes?  Where will displaced persons or refugees go? And will limited strikes merely contribute to the rise of an even greater insurgency, which launches violent attacks in struggles for power?

Any humanitarian should want adequate answers to these questions especially if they are going to support further military intervention.

Obama’s Calculated Secrecy to Skirt Debate Over a Response a Majority of Americans Do Not Support 

Finally, any humanitarian (or progressive) should be appalled by the way that Obama is handling the run-up to any future action. If President George W. Bush had conducted the situation like Obama, there would have been an uproar.

President Barack Obama and his staff know exactly what they will be doing. Anonymous and unnamed officials have been releasing bits and pieces of what has been decided. But not being open about a decision to support airstrikes, which appear to be inevitable, protects the White House from a situation where Congress convenes to debate and decide whether to authorize action by the president through a proper declaration of war.

Historically, the US has formally declared war eight times since 1900. It did not formally declare war before invading Iraq or Afghanistan, conducting airstrikes to counter Yugoslavia in Kosovo, enforcing a UN military flight ban over Bosnia-Herzegovnia and sending troops to Somalia. However, just because it has become common not to formally declare war does not mean it should be acceptable.

When Obama was a candidate for president, he told Charlie Savage, who was then with the Boston Globe:

2. In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action…

Especially since the future military action will be intended to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons, there is no imminent threat and Obama could easily go to Congress to ask for an authorization that supports taking military action to mete out punishment. This is what humanitarians and progressives should support.

Obama does not intend to build support for action through Congress. He intends to declassify some report allegedly containing signals intelligence, such as radio and phone calls between Syrian commanders, that demonstrates clearly that a chemical attack did take place that was carried out by Assad’s regime. He will give a speech to Americans selling the limited airstrikes in Syria and then the strikes will be launched whether members of Congress or the public decides the declassified report actually represents proof that Assad attacked his own people with chemical weapons.

The endgame will not be worked out. Obama will claim the US can just attack Syria for a few days and suspend operations. But won’t mission creep likely set in once limited airstrikes occur? Won’t it be difficult not to allow the
momentum to draw the US into efforts to topple Assad?

All of the above provides some thoughts to consider when deciding what to think about Obama’s decision to possibly increase US involvement in another Middle East war. Ramah Kudaimi of Mondoweiss has some good advice for progressives that should be read as well.

Photo by FreedomHouse released under Creative Commons License