The likelihood of US military actions against the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons in an early morning attack last Wednesday on towns in the vicinity of Damascas is high. Secretary of State John Kerry called regime responsibility “undeniable.” After a five day delay UN observers were finally allowed in the area. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will almost certainly remain alone in denying responsibility for chemical weapons attack which according to Doctors without Borders have already claimed 355 lives lost in the clinics it supports. The US administration will not be alone if military action is taken. The French foreign minister minister has said that the “only option I do not envisage is to do nothing.” As reported in the NY Times (8/27) the Obama administration is looking at cruise missile strikes from destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean aimed at military bases in Syria.

There are ample precedents for international military action taken to protect civilians from internationally recognized crimes against humanity. Use of chemical weapons is prohibited by numerous international treaties: the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Gas Protocol, and the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases. Use of chemical weapons is a war crime over which the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction.

Military strikes against al-Assad in the wake of chemical attacks need not imply anything further than the protection of civilian populations from violations of international law. It would not make a statement of intention to overthrow al-Assad. The 1991 invasion of Kuwait was specifically to respond to Saddam Hussein’s violation of international law in invading Kuwait. After restoring Kuwait’s sovereignty we did not go on to overthrow Saddam. The 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade was part of NATO’s action taken under the Anti Genocide Conventions to protect Albanian residents of Kosovo from Serbian killings. Kosovo independence was the ultimate result. The international community did not, however, follow up its military campaign with military action to overthrow then Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic.

Military actions of the kind contemplated in this case and in the past have assumed imminent further threats and a population to be protected. There need not be a continuing threat to a civilian population, however, to justify military action. The use of chemical weapons should be punished. Meting out punishment in the International Criminal Court is punishment. So are military strikes against al-Assad’s military bases. When Bosnian Serb Xdravko Tolimar was found guilty by the ICC in 2012 for war crimes committed in the Bosnian war,and jailed for life, he was no longer a threat to anyone. He was punished, as Assad should be.
Elizabeth Clark