There are many bad reasons being given for bombing the Syrian government. Richard Haass offers up some of the worst and weakest of all:
It is important that he not be allowed to escape without paying a price. The norm against the use of chemical or any weapon of mass destruction was weakened by global inaction four years ago. It is essential that it be strengthened now, not just for the future of Syria, but also because policies will be influenced in both Tehran and Pyongyang by what is decided and done here.
It’s important to understand that none of this is true. The norm against the use of chemical weapons was not weakened four years ago. All of the adherents of the Chemical Weapons Convention still adhere to it, and no other government has resorted to using these weapons since 2013. The norm has been maintained, and so we can see that it wasn’t and isn’t necessary to bomb the Syrian government to maintain it. Broad international rejection of the use of these weapons is as strong as it has ever been. The “global inaction” Haass refers to was a decision not to launch an illegal war against another state. It is hard to see how an international norm can be strengthened at the same time that international law is trampled on.
The assumption that the Syrian government will be deterred from using unconventional weapons in the future if it is made to “pay a price” now is a very shaky one. It is just as likely that an attack will provoke the behavior that it is supposedly trying to deter. Punitive action can sometimes backfire and make the targeted government defiant. More to the point, punitive action can be effective only if the target believes that it will be applied consistently every time, and even then it may not work. Unless the U.S. is prepared to bomb Syrian forces in response to every similar future attack, it is a mistake to assume that bombing them this time will have the desired effect. Invoking North Korea and Iran is a diversionary tactic to make intervention in Syria seem more useful than it is. Those governments are not going to be intimidated by an attack on Syria’s government. They are much more likely to become more intransigent and uncooperative, and especially in the case of Iran they may very well view it as a prelude to an attack on them.
Obama narrowly dodged a bullet in choosing not to launch yet another war in 2013. Instead of learning from that near-miss and appreciating how close the U.S. came to making a huge and potentially very costly mistake, our foreign policy professionals seem only too eager to blunder into a new war that we avoided four years ago. Trump should ignore them, and if he doesn’t he risks sinking his presidency before it has even begun.