On the night of Friday, April 13, 2018, the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and France authorized their armed forces to conduct “precision” airstrikes on targets in Syria. The airstrikes were ordered in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 42 people, on April 7, and the strikes were reportedly made against chemical weapons manufacturing facilities (although this has now been disputed).
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been trying to gain access to the sites of attack since Sunday, April 15, but have encountered several delays which are now raising concern as to how much information the team will be able to uncover. The fact that the investigation team hasn’t been permitted into the region is obviously concerning, as this could be a clear opportunity for forces loyal to the Assad government to clean up any evidence that could point blame in their direction. Russia and the Syrian government have publicly called for an investigation, but simultaneously OPCW inspectors have so far been unable to reach Douma because they haven’t been given permission.
Though there is evidence that points to the Syrian regime being responsible for the attack, and though it is possible that forces loyal to Assad may be blocking an investigation, there is still no conclusive evidence to prove that they are responsible. What the evidence we have certainly is not able to do is lay blame on Syrian government forces beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very significant legal distinction that needs to be made when discussing Western intervention in the Middle East.
Based on this fact alone, along with the fact that the airstrikes were not multilaterally authorized by the United Nations Security Council, unilateral military intervention in Syria is unjust and illegal under international law, and without a new authorization for the use of military force from the U.S. Congress, the airstrikes in Syria made by U.S. Forces were also illegal under the U.S. Constitution. All things considered, it is also important to remember that the last time the United States acted outside of the UN Charter to attack a Middle Eastern country over an “alleged” anything, they inadvertently gave birth to the world’s most infamous Islamist movement.
Before going any further, it should be noted that chemical weapons are explicitly banned by international law for a reason, and that the use of these agents on civilian populations should be met with swift action by the international community. The primary concern however, is that in the most recent example of an “international response,” attacks by the U.S., U.K. and France were made based on evidence that could not be independently verified and was never shared with the public.
Additionally, reports from media outlets not based in NATO countries openly dispute whether or not Western strikes really hit substantive targets, with some news outlets alleging with detail that one Syrian research centre hit was actually a civilian pharmaceutical anti-venom research centre, and was a facility that was regularly visited and inspected by OPCW inspectors for years.
Along with this news story, there are other groups that are directly disputing the information that has been recently provided by the Pentagon, including human rights organizations. Reuters cites a pro-Assad militia commander who says that army depots and an area in which Iranian troops operate were hit, and as reported by the BBC, “U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggested more targets than the three listed by the Pentagon had been hit.” All of these were not reported by the Pentagon.
Again, the use of chemical weapons by any state or non-state actor is absolutely unacceptable, and again, any reports of these agents being used absolutely must be investigated by OPCW officials. However, when it is found that a state did actually use these weapons, it is always the obligation of the United Nations Security Council and its member states to apply military force as response for these crimes, not a few western countries who decide to act unilaterally.
When one or a few countries independently decide which crimes are worth punishing and which are not, inconsistent results immediately begin to show. While the U.S., U.K. and France turn public attention to themselves for their “humanitarian” response in Syria and say that they are actually the defenders of international law, they all actively support ongoing war crimes elsewhere. This inconsistency in humanitarian agenda makes any intervention in Syria based on “Syrian violations of international law” ridiculous.
The same justifications were also made for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Confident” U.S. officials have “reason(s) to believe” that a “regime” has weapons of “mass destruction;” the world has literally heard it all before. With that on the table, it is in no way unreasonable to be skeptical of the United States and its allies when it comes to foreign policy towards Syria, as the United States has literally been committing war crimes, based entirely on false pretenses, in the Middle East over the past 20 years.
Examples such as one rules-of-engagement catastrophe in 2005 come to mind, where 24 civilians were publicly executed by U.S. Marines in retaliation for the death of a comrade in the town of Haditha. More recently, overwhelming reports allege that the Trump administration is actually responsible for war crimes in Iraq in Syria since coming to power, with “staggering” civilian death rates arising as a result of the new administration’s military actions according to a UN investigator in June of 2017.
What the take-away after the past two weeks should be is that a healthy dose of skepticism is more than justifiable when discussing recent Western military action in Syria. The content of this article is in no way to push a pro-Assad or Assad-apologist agenda, and it is in no way intended to diminish the fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died during Syria’s civil war, many directly because of Syrian government action.
Instead, this article is meant to be one of very few nuanced collections of information that attempts to be considerate of all available information during this crisis. Though events ongoing in Syria right now are not equivalent to the situation of Iraq’s 15 years prior, it isn’t that much different either. When taking into consideration that National Security Advisor John Bolton has been restructuring the U.S. National Security Team in what appears to be a direct continuation of the George Bush Administration’s foreign policy from nine years ago, it begins to get even more concerning.
The world needs to proceed with caution with regards to Syria, ignoring everything else, because if U.S. foreign policy continues down the path of unilateralism, unpunished war crimes, and never-ending escalation with the Russian Federation, it could mean consequences on a global scale that are far more deadly than the alleged chemical attacks in Syria were two weeks ago.