Two-faced in West Asia

President Barack Obama’s case for intervening in Syria is legally weak, internationally divisive and morally hollow

Updated - November 16, 2021 09:20 pm IST

Published - September 04, 2013 12:05 am IST

130904 - Lead -US and Syria

130904 - Lead -US and Syria

President Obama’s plan to take military action against Syria can be legitimately questioned on legal, political and moral grounds. Syria has not, strictly speaking, violated international law in using chemical weapons against its own population. It has not signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Egypt too has not signed and Israel has not yet ratified. Syria adhered to the 1925 Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons in 1968, but that instrument applies to armed conflict between states, not to use within a country’s borders.

Syria has not used or threatened to use chemical weapons against the United States or other western powers. The U.N. Security Council has not passed a resolution authorising the use of force against Syria. The right of self-defence or collective self-defence cannot therefore be invoked to attack Syria militarily. The legal case being weak, the U.S. is accusing Syria of violating the “norms” against the use of chemical weapons. Violation of “norms” can invite condemnation or even non-military sanctions by individual countries, but not a unilateral military response by a third country against an errant one. The U.S. or the United Kingdom, it can be argued, have not been designated by the international community to enforce “norms” militarily or otherwise on their behalf against recalcitrant states.


President Obama has announced his readiness to act without U.N. Security Council approval, recalling post-Cold War U.S. unilateralism, an era assumed to be over, not the least because such unilateralism imposed forbidding military, political and financial costs on the U.S. The argument that Russia and China are responsible for blocking decisions in the Security Council, compelling the U.S., the U.K. and others to therefore act alone, implies that non-western P 5 members have an obligation to always concur with invariably principled, lawful and constructive U.S. and British positions as against their own self-serving, morally skewed obstructionism. Burnt by their experience with the Libyan resolution which the West exploited to attack Libya, Russia and China may understandably be exceptionally wary on Syria, given the West’s constant vituperations against President Assad.

If the legal case for western intervention is weak, the political and moral case is full of contradictions. This is not the first instance of chemical weapons use in West Asia. They were used in the Iraq-Iran war and by Iraq and Syria internally in the past. In all these cases, no external retribution followed. In fact, western powers conveniently ignored these transgressions, and, in the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein remained an acceptable interlocutor till the change of political calculations made him an enemy. The U.S.’s use of chemical agents in the Vietnam war also complicates discussions on the moral dimension of the western position.

Comparing Egypt and Syria

The contrast between the West’s approach to the latest developments in Egypt and the turmoil in Syria is politically telling. The Syrian government cannot be forgiven because it forcibly suppressed peaceful demonstrations in favour of democracy, rejected the dynamics of the so-called Arab Spring and created conditions for civil strife. In western eyes this makes their intervention and that of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Syrian government politically and morally defensible. Key western leaders have declared time and again that President Assad must and will go, as if they must decide the political fortunes of a foreign head of state in his own country. To oust him, they have bolstered the rebels politically and militarily. However, concerns about al-Qaeda linked extremist religious organisations gaining ground in Syria is conflicting with the goal of breaking Iran’s nexus with Syria and the Hezbollah in the interest of Israel’s security, and this is causing some confusion and shakiness in western strategy.

In Egypt’s case, when peaceful demonstrations demanding the reinstatement of a democratically elected leader have been brutally suppressed by the Egyptian military, causing more casualties than the number of gas attack victims in Damascus, the U.S. condones it as an action to safeguard democracy. The U.S. countenanced the overthrow of President Mubarak; it supported the Arab Spring street activists as harbingers of democracy; it backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power through democratic elections, seeing in this emergence of political Islam a solution to the conundrum of marrying Islam with western-style democracy; it has now supported the overthrow of Morsi through a military coup. This extraordinary political flexibility in dealing with developments in Egypt, guided less by principles than by compulsions of self-interest, is notably absent in the case of Syria. What adds to the irony is that though the Arab Spring is dead, President Assad is still being punished for rejecting that phenomenon in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood has been traditionally highly radical and the danger of sectarian strife in its religiously diverse society, large sections of which are attached to secularism, is most acute.


U.S. leaders are convinced that the Assad government is guilty of the gas attack based on evidence they claim to possess. They are satisfied with that evidence and do not think that leaders of other major countries need to be satisfied too, even when the latter have serious concerns about armed action in an already highly combustible region, with a potentially grave fallout elsewhere. The U.S. leaders want others to accept what they say at face value, despite their credibility in such matters being especially low after the lies purveyed about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent chemical weapons to justify the war against Iraq. It is discomforting to hear Secretary Kerry speak with such certitude and vehemence about Assad’s guilt even before the U.N. inspectors have completed their groundwork and delivered their report to the U.N. Secretary-General.

It is noteworthy that after the first chemical attack in Syria purportedly from rebel positions, the Syrian government asked the U.N. Security Council in March to send an investigation team, a move apparently blocked by the U.S. for five months as it sought the extension of the team’s mandate to the whole of Syria. The U.N. team that has just concluded its work was in Syria in response to Syria’s initial request. That the second attack on August 21 coincided with the arrival of this team speaks for itself. No wonder President Putin has called the accusations against the Syrian government “utter nonsense” and has asked the U.S. share the evidence at its disposal.

Politically convenient

U.S. leaders argue that the U.N. team’s mandate is only to verify whether chemical weapons have been used, not who used them, and that, in any case, Syrian bombardments of the site where they were used will destroy any remaining evidence. They are apparently pre-empting the U.N. report and making it irrelevant to their decision to take military action. Such a posture strengthens suspicions that having drawn a redline which seems to have been breached — even though it is unclear by whom — President Obama is under pressure to act to assert America’s global leadership. Holding the Syrian government responsible is politically convenient as it supports the strategy of ousting Assad, whereas holding the al-Qaeda linked rebel group Al Nusra responsible — which, incidentally, was caught in Turkey in May with two kilos of sarin gas — will upturn the entire western strategy in Syria.

Why the U.S. President is prepared to strike at Syria alone even as his principal acolyte has been tripped by a parliamentary vote in his own country is baffling. Its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Libya should have counselled extreme caution in getting embroiled in another conflict in the Islamic world. The human cost of western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have been enormous but are being overlooked in the political calculus underlying an attack on Syria. The absurdity of causing humanitarian mayhem in the name of humanitarian action should not escape politicians who are Nobel peace laureates.

(Kanwal Sibal is a former Foreign Secretary.)

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