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Haass’ Bad Case for “Limited Action” in Syria

Richard Haass wants [1] a “robust” response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria:

It is essential to respond directly and meaningfully to any use of such weapons so they are not used again by the regime. But the reasons for a strong response transcend Syria. It will be a very different 21st century if weapons of mass destruction – whether they are chemical, biological or nuclear – come to be seen as just another type of weapon. There needs to be a robust taboo surrounding their use. Any leader must know that a decision to deploy them will sacrifice sovereign immunity and result in many in the world accepting nothing less than ousting and arrest.

Since almost all countries [2] are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, there are very few governments that are likely to treat chemical weapons as “just another type of weapon.” In spite of the Syrian government’s use of these weapons, the taboo against their use is already very strong and not likely to be violated by any of the states that have agreed to the convention. The norm that Haass proposes is one that probably won’t be consistently enforced in the future, and it cannot be effectively enforced in the Syrian case without making a larger military commitment than he is willing to support. It is all very well to insist on such a norm in the abstract, but in practice punishing the Syrian regime for its chemical weapons use would require a lot more than the few airstrikes that Haass recommends.

Once the U.S. starts attacking regime targets inside Syria, it will have openly joined the war in Syria. If the “limited action” Haass wants fails to stop additional uses of chemical weapons, the U.S. will be pressured to continue escalating its involvement until the Syrian government is overthrown. After the regime is defeated, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal will no longer be secure, and these weapons will go to whichever group can seize or buy them first, and it is even less likely that these groups will respect the taboo against their use.

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20 Comments To "Haass’ Bad Case for “Limited Action” in Syria"

#1 Comment By Rawls On August 23, 2013 @ 11:18 am

“After the regime is defeated, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal will no longer be secure, and these weapons will go to whichever group can seize or buy them first, and it is even less likely that these groups will respect the taboo against their use. ”

This really should scare the hell out of everyone reading this. And this rarely mentioned downside should be brought up by every reporter interviewing politicians who support “robust” US involvement in Syria.

#2 Comment By AndrewH On August 23, 2013 @ 11:47 am

So what motivation did Assad have for using chemical weapons (Obama’s “red line”) when he was, seemingly, on his way to victory?

#3 Comment By Myron Hudson On August 23, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

Limited engagement indeed. We know what’s up. The phrase “just the tip” comes to mind. Haass’ latest argument is just another grab at another straw.

#4 Comment By Gordon Hanson On August 23, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

Richard Haas’ dreams run far ahead of reality, as is true with all too many people. We humans are strange creatures, able to rearrange “reality” in our minds in an eyeblink, even as the actual world is an infinitely more anfractuous place than the modelings that take place in our minds.

#5 Comment By Northern Observer On August 23, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

America has picked the wrong side of this conflict if its goals are to limit the loss of life. Unfortunately, the American FP brain trust has other things on its mind.

#6 Comment By Cliff On August 23, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

Do we know that Syria has used chemical weapons? Has Syria confirmed it, or have there been any reports immune to the Mandy Rice-Davis test?

#7 Comment By icarusr On August 23, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

From the horse’s mouth, for what it’s worth:

The notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.

You know, we’re still spending tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan. I will be ending that war by the end of 2014, but every time I go to Walter Reed and visit wounded troops, and every time I sign a letter for a casualty of that war, I’m reminded that there are costs and we have to take those into account as we try to work within an international framework to do everything we can to see Assad ousted — somebody who’s lost credibility — and to try to restore a sense of a democratic process and stability inside of Syria.

Now, of course, talking about “an international framework” will mark him, instantly, as an apologist who leads from behind; his statement about Assad makes him into an interventionist; and his talk about democracy marks him as a naïve tool who is in over his head. And, of course, I have never heard a more defeatist statement than the opening. Of course American can solve any problem, as long as there is Will, Action and the right sort of Statement. As Rubio might say, who needs to worry about complexity when you have America leading?

#8 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On August 23, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

Based on past history, a lot more people will die and be displaced by US bombing or intervention than by the chemical weapons supposedly used so far.

#9 Comment By John On August 23, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

Let’s use our weapons of mass destruction to punish them for using their weapons of mass destruction on someone else. Surely no one else would make note of the precedent.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 24, 2013 @ 7:22 am

The United States still reserves to itself, the right to first strike nuclear weapon use, and still subscribes to Mutually Assured Destruction.

Thus, there is no credibility to the idea that a country threatened with the existential loss of its own government, would not resort to any and all means it is capable of, including prohibited tactics and weapons.

Our own western nations have done so, with far less provocation, from the gasses used on the mass killing fields of World War I, to Agent Orange used in mass defoliation of Viet Nam, to phosphorous ammunition in Israel. Even Winston Churchill approved of the use of gas – but only on rebellious colonial subjects.

Recently, the Geneva Conventions, under the provocation of destruction of the world trade center, were consigned to the garbage heap and ruled “quaint” by our own government so that we could engage in kidnapping, torture and assassination – and given the exposed secret illegality and deception of many of its covert actions – who knows what else?

Moreover, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the toxic aftereffects of the chemicals used in our own weaponry have produced severe side effects and loss of life.

The reason to “intervene” in Syria is not because chemical weapons are (or not) being used, it is because any credible provocation is being sought in order to do so. The previous credible evidence of chemical weapon use had the Al Qaeda-affiliate rebels we are backing against Syria using them, but that didn’t stop support for them. War with Syria is being sought for the purpose of overthrowing a government and then imposing a new one which will be amenable to policies benefiting certain elements of western foreign powers. It is hoped that this will provide an eventual path towards overthrowing Syria’s sometime ally, Iran.

#11 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

Bravo, Daniel. Poor policy advice from Richard Haass.

#12 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

@Cliff – – Apt comment re: Mandy Rice-Davies.

#13 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 24, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

This just in from the BBC:

“Medecins Sans Frontieres says hospitals it supports in Syria treated about 3,600 patients with ‘neurotoxic symptoms’, of whom 355 have died.”

The U.S., Britain and France need to read carefully the statement by MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens:

“‘MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,’ said MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens.”


#14 Comment By Andrew On August 24, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

Haas read too much Tom Clancy.

#15 Comment By Neildsmith On August 24, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

We ought not let these people get away with advocating a limited response to the latest atrocity in Syria. People are dead and they are dead no matter the method employed. There is no difference between a knife, bullet, fire, chemicals, bacteria, or viruses. Dead is dead.

If some propose to help the people of Syria and alleviate their suffering then do it. Go in with all the power of the US military and the federal budget. Let us destroy Assad, purge Al Qaeda from the area, and give the peace loving people of Syria a chance to rebuild their society so that it becomes a model for the entire region from North Africa to Pakistan.

There are no half measures worth doing. Either go all in or let them sort it out on their own. If America isn’t willing to go all in, then we should say so and avert our eyes while they take care of business themselves.

#16 Comment By James Canning On August 25, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

@Rawls – – Good point.

#17 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 26, 2013 @ 9:39 am

I’ve been wondering why Richard Haass and the pro-war-with-Syria media in the U.S. haven’t been making a bigger issue of Syria’s failure to ratify the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Convention.

Then I checked out the list of the 6 other nations of world (besides Syria) who have also failed to ratify the OPCW convention: Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, South Sudan, North Korea. Oops!

Now I understand why Richard Haass and Co. prefer to beat the drums of war without bringing up the issue of “failure to ratify the OPCW Convention.”

It’s also interesting to look at the list of 13 nations which — even as they ratified the OPCW convention — continued to produce chemical weapons. Ouch! (Reassure me, President Obama.) And even as of 2012, by which time most of the 13 nations claim to have destroyed their production facilities, to look at the list of those countries which CONTINUED to produce chemical weapons. Double-Ouch! (Say something, President Obama! Spin something at us!)

#18 Comment By WorkingClass On August 26, 2013 @ 11:55 am

Chemical weapons have nothing to do with the proxy war in Syria. The recent gas attack was a false flag attack. Assad is not a moron and he is no worse than Putin or Obama. C’mon Y’all. We have seen this movie before. Washington’s addiction to perpetual war means that the U.S. will continue it’s slide into the third world.

Richard Haass is doing his part to “catapult the propaganda”. Some people will do anything for money.

#19 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 26, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

Thank you, Working Class. My sentiments exactly.

#20 Comment By James Canning On August 26, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

Writing in the Financial Times today, David Gardner notes that the Syrian gov’t at times has done things that simply made no sense. This does not mean that the chemical weapons attack was ordered by the Assad gov’t.