Is Striking Syria For Using Chemical Weapons The Right Thing To Do?

Owen Poindexter
It seems ever more likely that the U.S. will conduct some sort of military strike on Syria as retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. Is this a good idea?

Syria, chemical weapons, strike, U.S., al-Assad
Syria President Bashar al-Assad denies using chemical weapons against his own people. PHOTO: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom, CC License

It seems ever more likely that the U.S. will conduct some sort of military strike on Syria as retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. There are still a lot of moving parts here—U.N. inspectors are examining the site of the recent horrific attack that killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians, for evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied that his military or anyone connected with the Syrian government used chemical weapons, and Russia, Syria’s most prominent ally, has warned against a strike by the U.S.

However, the statements of President Obama, Defense Secretary Hagel and Secretary of State Kerry all seem to indicate that a U.S. retaliation strike is imminent. Though few seem aware of it, a U.S. response will not be equivalent to a full-fledged joining of the anti-Assad rebels who have been in a civil war with the Syrian military for two years. Rather, it will more likely be a one-off punishment for Syria using chemical weapons.

The question this article asks: should chemical weapons receive special attention and reactions in a way that conventional weapons don’t?

The argument in favor: Chemical weapons should be stamped out of this world, and the most effective way to do that is to put a high cost on using them wherever they are detected. The attack in Syria killed hundreds of civilians, including children and entire families. This crosses the line between the battlefield and the commons in a horrific, indiscriminate way. Syria, and all those who might imitate it, need to know in visceral terms that there is a cost to this action, a cost that makes the use of chemical weapons not worth it.

The argument against: Chemical weapons are horrible, yes, but they are horrible in sensory terms, not the actual damage that they do. The Syrian regime has killed thousands of its own people through more “traditional” attacks in the last two years. Shouldn’t the ultimate factor be how damaging the attack is, not how scary it looks? Furthermore, retaliating against Syria reinforces the U.S.’s role as the world’s police, enforcing moral norms wherever they are violated. Can the U.S. really hold up to this standard, both in its own actions and what it tolerates in its allies?

There is more to say on and about both sides, but I would like to hear what you think. Should the U.S. retaliate against Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people? If so, should it be a one-off strike or a prolonged effort on the side of Syria’s rebels? If not, is there any point at which you believe it is appropriate for the U.S. to intervene in another country’s crisis, Syria or elsewhere?

Let me know in the comments and on twitter.