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Latest on Syria: 10 Ways Bombing Syria Would Be Bad For the U.S., and Syrians

On the eve of Obama’s military response to allegations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the latest on Syria suggests there are at least ten reasons why the President should reject a bombing campaign. 

1. Bombing is not the most effective way to bring peace to the Syrian people

If you are perplexed by the idea that we can bring peace to the Syrian people with a volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles, you are not alone. A majority of Americans are firmly opposed to military intervention in Syria. Even setting aside the substantial risks, Americans realize that bombing will do little to help the Syrian people. Considering the ostensibly “humanitarian” motives of the White House, I am surprised no one has suggested other alternatives for achieving peace. 

The single-most effective step we can take to bring peace to Syria is to stop funding and arming the rebel army, while pressuring our Arab allies to do the same. It is no secret that this civil war has survived on the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been battling the regime for months, while al Qaeda backed jihadists have joined the fight from Iraq. In Damascus, Syrian rebels report that the Saudis are paying them to fight. Other reports have the CIA paying rebel fighters $150 per month. For over a year, the CIA has been helping its Arab allies funnel weapons to the rebel forces and train rebel soldiers. As explained in this report by Michael Kelley and Geoffrey Ingersoll from Business Insider, substantial evidence suggests the CIA was shipping Libyan weapons out of Benghazi to Syrian rebels, via Turkey.

2. Assad’s regime presents no national security threat to the United States

Assad’s regime in Syria has not attacked the United States. It has not attacked an ally of the United States. It is not threatening to attack the U.S. or our allies. As Senator Rand Paul cogently observed, “The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States.” This fact alone weighs heavily against the President’s proposed military intervention.

3. There are substantial strategic risks

If the President moves ahead with a temporary air campaign against Syria, we must be candid about the risks. Despite our technological capabilities, any bombing campaign will have collateral damage and innocent Syrian civilians will die. The risk that substantial numbers of civilians die by U.S. bombs is very real, and could undermine the whole purpose of the operation. 

There are also significant strategic risks involved. Already, Israel has been threatened by Iran and Syria. Remembering Iraqi Scud missiles from the first Persian Gulf War, Israel is now preparing to defend itself against a chemical weapons attack that might be launched in response to U.S. bombing. In that event, how would Israel respond? How would the U.S. respond if Israel, one of our closest allies, came under attack? Would this draw Israel and the U.S. into a broader war against Iran, as well?

Another question is how Russia might react. Although most political observers believe Russia would not retaliate in response to the U.S. bombing Syria, it is impossible to be certain. Earlier this month, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia tried to persuade Putin to abandon Assad, while reportedly suggesting that he could control jihadist terror groups in Chechnya during the upcoming Winter Olympic games in Russia. Later, several news outlets reported unsubstantiated claims that Russia is threatening to launch attacks against Saudi Arabia if the west bombs Syria. Although these reports might indeed be overblown and lacking in credibility, they are not being ignored. In Pakistan, the vice-president of the nation’s largest religious party acknowledged Russia’s threats against Saudi Arabia, saying they “would be treated as a declaration of war against Islam.” However remote that possibility may be, the seriousness of any war involving Russia is not something to take lightly. 

Perhaps the biggest risk comes from the rebel forces who might seize control of Syria if Assad’s regime does fall. Included among the rebels fighting Assad are the jihadist fighters of Jahbat al-Nusra, a terror organization that earlier this year pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda. The other rebels are not much better. One video posted on YouTube shows a rebel commander for the Free Syrian Army praising Allah while eating the heart of a deceased Syrian soldier. In other instances, Syrian rebels have ransacked a Franciscan monastery, beheading three individuals including a Catholic priest, kidnapped Christian bishops, and even executed a 14-year old boy in front of his mother for telling a blasphemous joke.

While Syria has never attacked the United States, we have been attacked by al-Qaeda and we remain at war with al-Qaeda. Do we really want to fight alongside our terrorist enemies in Syria? Do we want al-Qaeda fighters to get their hands on heavy weaponry, like surface to air missiles or the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons?  Supporting al-Qaeda linked rebels backfired in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, it backfired in the recent uprising in Libya, and will most certainly backfire again in Syria. We need to extinguish al-Qaeda, not support them.

4. The proposed bombing campaign will accomplish nothing

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the President wants an attack on Syria “just strong enough to avoid getting mocked.” The attack will probably involve several days of cruise missile strikes and bombing missions aimed at degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capability. However, as noted by Joshua Foust, without a ground force invasion Assad’s regime will survive, the civil war will continue, and “any sort of Western response to the bloodshed in Syria will be symbolic, at best.” Even the architect of the proposed war plan describes the strategy of launching a few cruise missiles as “pointless and counterproductive.” If this is the best we can hope to accomplish, it would be better to avoid going to war altogether. 

5. Substantial uncertainty exists regarding the chemical weapons attack

According to the narrative advanced by the White House, the Assad regime ordered chemical weapons attacks on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21, killing over 1,429 civilians. Despite the administration’s confident tone, the U.N. inspectors tasked with determining whether chemical weapons have been used may not reach a conclusion for another two weeks. Although anecdotal and video evidence strongly suggests a gas attack took place, there is not yet any biological evidence of chemical weapons. Even if there was a gas attack, Assad makes frequent use of tear gas and numerous reports have suggested Assad is using tear gas mixed with other industrial agents. Adding to the confusion, experts quoted in the Huffington Post say the video evidence is inconsistent with mustard gas, sarin or VX – Assad’s suspected arsenal of chemical weapons.

There are also conflicting reports about who was responsible for the gas attack in Ghouta.  Veteran AP and BBC reporter Dale Gravlas reported the deadly attack was the result of chemical weapons supplied to the rebels by Saudi intel chief, Prince Bandar. According to the report, “more than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.” The rebels further described receiving chemical weapons from the Saudis, and attributed the deaths in Ghouta to an accidental discharge of the chemical agents by untrained rebels. 

Based on the publicly available information, it is far too early to confirm with a sufficient degree of confidence (1) that a non-tear gas chemical weapons attack occurred in Ghouta, (2) that regime forces conducted the attack, and (3) that Assad ordered the attack. After the serious intelligence failures of the last administration, and given the absence of any immediate need to attack Syria now, it would be reckless to proceed before eliminating all reasonable doubt about Assad’s role in these attacks.

6. We have virtually zero international support

In the rare cases when the U.S. has acted without authorization from the U.N. Security Council, there was still a substantial coalition of nations that joined us. Even the Iraq War in 2003 counted 40 nations among the “coalition of the willing.” 

Now, aside from France, we can hardly muster any international support for an action against Syria. Britain’s parliament voted to reject military intervention. CanadaAustraliaGermany and Italy have all said they will not join the U.S. in a military operation. Even the Arab League (which supported the 2011 bombing in Libya), has refused to support military action absent U.N. Security Council approval.  Going ahead with military action in violation of international law is already a challenge.  Doing so unilaterally with (at most) one other international partner is just foolish.

7. It violates international law

The United Nations charter states that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” There are two exceptions to this rule: (1) self-defense, and (2) force authorized by the UN Security Council. Neither of these exceptions apply vis-à-vis the U.S. and Syria, and as such, any proposed bombing campaign would lack a legal justification. Even the New York Times, while supporting the President’s use of force, nevertheless admits the war would be illegal under international law.

8. We don’t have the money to pay for it

In the wake of the sequester, the Pentagon does not have much extra cash on hand.  According to one report, there are no extra funds in the Defense budget to pay for a bombing campaign against Syria. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has stated this concern bluntly, observing that “our military has no money left.” With over 79 percent of Americans demanding a Congressional vote prior to any military operation, the lack of money is problematic for a White House keen to avoid having its plans rejected on Capitol Hill. Unlike the war power questions, there is no dispute among legal scholars that only Congress has the power of the purse, i.e. the exclusive power to raise revenue and appropriate funds.

9. It would violate the War Powers Resolution of 1973

Since 1973, the President cannot unilaterally go to war absent compliance with the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR). Section 1541(c) limits the President's authority to introduce armed forces into hostilities to the following three circumstances: (1) where a declaration of war is made, (2) where specific statutory authorization is given, or (3) in the event of a national emergency created by an attack on the United States. Although Section 1544 of the WPR requires the President to obtain Congressional approval within 60 days of introducing armed forces into hostilities, this provision must be read in light of the act as a whole. Clearly, in view of Section 1541(c), the 60-day limitation is intended for military responses to an attack on the United States, when prior Congressional authorization would be impractical. Nothing in the act authorizes the President to embark on offensive, foreign military campaigns without Congressional authorization.

Thus, a "national emergency created by an attack on the United States" is the only scenario where the President could introduce armed forces into hostilities without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization. Since none of the three circumstances specified by Section 1541(c) exist in the case of Syria, the President will violate the War Powers Resolution of 1973 if he orders any bombing campaign.  

10. It would be unconstitutional

The President has stated the United States must respond to alleged chemical weapons use, and is contemplating a bombing campaign against the Syrian government.This is an act of war. Article 1, section 8 of United States Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power to declare war. Thus, absent a declaration of war from the United States Congress, the President’s unilateral bombing campaign would be unconstitutional.

Notwithstanding this clear directive, there are some lawyers, like John Yoo, who believe that the executive retains the power to “engage in war,” while the Congressional power to “declare war” encompasses only the formal act of making a declaration. This interpretation, however, ignores the Founding Father’s clear intent when drafting the Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison stressed that Congress be given the power to "declare" war, while "leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks." As the United States Supreme Court has previously observed, the President is empowered to act unilaterally to repel invasions or insurrections, but “he has no power to initiate or declare a war either against a foreign nation.” To suggest otherwise, noted Supreme Court Justice Nelson, would be “to assert that the Constitution contemplated and tacitly provided that the President should be dictator, and all Constitutional Government be at an end.” 

The result of our intervention so far has been to prolong a bloody civil war that has already claimed over 100,000 lives and left Syria in ruins. If we really want to end the suffering of the Syrian people, we will not succeed with bombs and cruise missiles. Instead, we should end the bloodshed and the suffering, by calling off this proxy war and pressuring our Arab allies to do the same. 

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