The decision by President Barack Obama to first seek congressional approval of any US military action against Syria is good and important, not only on constitutional grounds but because it gives the American people an opportunity to stop it. It is critically important to convince members of Congress not to grant the president that authority.
Here are some of the top talking points that should be raised before members of Congress as to why authorizing US airstrikes on Syria would be a bad idea:
1) A US military attack would be illegal
According to the United Nations Charter, Article 2(4) makes it illegal for any country to use force or threaten to use force against another country and Article 2(7) prohibits intervention in an internal or domestic dispute in another country. The only legal use of military force is self-defense if one's country is under direct attack (Article 51) or in the event that the UN Security Council determines all peaceful means have been exhausted and specifically authorizes such use of force (Article 42.) Having one country violate international law to punish another country for violating international law makes little sense. Furthermore, given that the UN Charter is an international treaty that has been signed and ratified by the United States, it is to be treated as supreme law, according to Article VI of the Constitution. As a result, attacking Syria would therefore also be illegal under US law, even if authorized by Congress.
2) There is little strategic rationalization
The Obama administration insists that military action is not intended to change the military balance or attempt to overthrow the regime and would be limited as a response to the government's use of chemical weapons. However, bombing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles – some of which have been placed deliberately in crowded civilian neighborhoods – would release large amounts of toxic gasses into the air, which could kill many thousands of people. In addition, given that chemical weapons can be deployed on planes, missiles, mortars and other ways, there is no realistic way of eliminating their delivery systems either.
Furthermore, military strikes unlikely would be an effective deterrent: The threat of a US attack in the event that the Syrian regime would use chemical weapons, first put forward by Obama more than a year ago, failed to deter last month's attacks. Even if subjected to missile strikes in the coming weeks, there is little question that the regime would be willing to use them again, and on a more massive scale, if its survival was threatened. (It could also increase the risks that some elements in the opposition, should they get a hold of such weapons, would use them to provoke such foreign intervention.) Indeed, punitive airstrikes rarely have worked and often have led to more serious acts of retaliation. For example, the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi to punish the Qaddafi regime for supporting terrorist groups apparently resulted in the bombing of the Pan Am airliner of Lockerbie, Scotland.
3) Military intervention likely would lead to more death and destruction
Despite advances in military technologies which make cruise missiles and other explosives far more accurate than in previous decades, US attacks inevitably will result in civilian casualties. Furthermore, empirical studies have demonstrated repeatedly that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, such military intervention often triggers a "gloves off" mentality that dramatically escalates the violence on both sides, with the government believing they no longer had anything to lose and the rebels less prone to negotiate or compromise.
History is replete with examples of supposedly "limited" military actions that dramatically escalated. The International Crisis Group, a reputable and mainstream organization of some of the world's leading policy and strategic analysts, noted that it could "trigger violent escalation within Syria as the regime might exact revenge on rebels and rebel-held areas, while the opposition seeks to seize the opportunity to make its own gains" and, depending on the scale of the US strikes, even result in "retaliatory actions by the regime, Iran or Hizbollah, notably against Israel."
4) The US has little credibility regarding chemical weapons
Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, who have been leading the administration’s push for war, and Congressional leaders Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, who have been pushing their colleagues to support President Obama’s request, have categorically insisted that the Syrian government is responsible for the recent chemical weapons attacks. However, each one of them also categorically insisted in 2002 that the Iraqi regime still had large and dangerous stockpiles of chemical weapons that threatened the national security of the United States.
Even assuming that the current charges against the Syrian regime are true, the false statements they and other top US officials made about Iraq have severely weakened US credibility regarding alleged threats from chemical weapons.
The United States has sought repeatedly to undermine multilateral approaches to the control of chemical weapons and weaken its enforcement agencies, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The OPCW has been one of the most effective instruments for international arms control in recent years. It enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention by inspecting laboratories, factories and arsenals, and it oversees the destruction of chemical weapons. For example, the Bush administration successfully pushed for the dismissal of the OPCW’s highly effective director general, Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani, who had doubled the number of signatories under his leadership and oversaw the destruction of 2 million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world's chemical weapons facilities. The Bush administration and the Obama administration have periodically threatened to withhold the United States' financial contribution to the OPCW, which constituted more than 20 percent of its entire budget.
Another factor harming US credibility is inconsistency:
Unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States against Syria in 2003, which cited its refusal to join the Chemical Weapons Convention as a key finding in the bill, failed to convince the Syrian regime to disarm in large part because of the refusal by the United States to also demand that Israel and Egypt sign on to the convention as well. Indeed, the United States also blocked a 2007 Syrian effort at the United Nations to impose a regionwide ban on chemical weapons and other non-conventional weapons in accordance with Article 14 of UN Security Council resolution 687, apparently because it would have required that those two allies also rid themselves of such weapons.
The United States also has used weapons with chemical agents – such as napalm and white phosphorous – against civilians, has defended allied governments that have used them on civilian targets, and has attacked reputable human rights investigators who have uncovered their use. While these particular weapons are not specifically banned, the use of these weapons and the defense of their deployment in crowded civilian neighborhoods further erodes US credibility.
Recently declassified CIA memos confirm previous findings revealing how officials from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) were dispatched to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war to provide Saddam Hussein's regime with US satellite data on the location of Iranian troop concentrations in the full knowledge that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons against them. Even the Iraqi regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians was not seen as particularly problematic by the Reagan administration: The March 1988 massacre in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, where Saddam's forces murdered up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan administration, with some officials even falsely claiming that Iran was responsible. The United States continued sending aid to Iraq – including thiodiglycol, a key component in the manufacture of mustard gas, and other chemical precursors for their weapons program – even after the regime's use of poison gas was confirmed, and the Bush administration blocked congressional efforts to impose sanctions in 1990.
5) A military attack likely would strengthen the Syrian regime
Despite the horrific repression by the Syrian regime, the government still has the support of a substantial minority of Syrians, particularly given the growing influence of Salafi extremists among the rebels. Whatever strategic losses the Syrian regime may suffer from a US attack could be more than made up by political gains. President Bashar Assad and his father have for decades successfully manipulated the Syrian people's strong sense of nationalism into support for their rule. US support for the 46 years of Israeli occupation of the southwestern part of their country and the US role in pressuring the Israelis to reject a 2007 Syrian peace offer has led to enormous resentment, even by opponents of the regime. The repeated attacks by US Navy jets of Syrian positions in Lebanon during 1983-84 and the raid by US army commandoes on a border village in eastern Syria in 2008, which killed a number of civilians, also resulted in a nationalist reaction of closing ranks around the regime, which would be even stronger in the event of the much larger attack being considered. Any time a country is attacked from the outside, there is a rallying-around-the-flag effect. This would be particularly true in Syria, where the regime has convinced millions of Syrians and others that – despite its horrific repression – it is the last noble bastion of secular Arab nationalism resisting both Islamist extremism and Western imperialism. A US attack would play right into that narrative.
6) A military strike likely would reduce the chances of successfully ending the war
There is no realistic military resolution to the conflict. Neither the government nor the rebels can achieve a military victory in the foreseeable future. There are only two realistic means of ending the bloodshed:
One is through negotiation, presumably leading to an agreement that would impose a sustainable ceasefire and a political transition to a popularly supported government. While outrage at the Syrian regime's actions in understandable, the United States has not been consistently supportive of professional impartial mediation and other peace-making efforts, such as backing former UN Security General Kofi Annan's April 2012 peace plan. Given this record, a US attack on Syria would more likely harden the attitude by the regime and its international supporters in terms of a negotiated settlement. The only scenario that might work would be for an attack to be harmful enough to motivate compromise, but not so devastating to prompt retaliation, a combination that is extremely hard to calibrate.
The other way to reduce the killing is through a resurgence of the broad-based nonviolent pro-democracy struggle, initially launched in March 2011. When the opposition turned to a predominantly armed struggle by early the following year, it resulted in substantially higher civilian casualties, reduced defections from the security forces, substantially lessened the numbers of activists in the resistance, and led to the rise of anti-democratic elements in the opposition. Military intervention would demoralize and disempower those remaining in the nonviolent resistance who are daily risking their lives for their freedom while encouraging armed elements who – with their vanguard mentality, martial values and strict military hierarchy – are far less interested in freedom and justice and whose actions have prompted a dramatic escalation of repression by the regime, including the apparent use of chemical weapons.
7) The United States is isolated in the international community
In addition to not having the requisite support in the United Nations Security Council, the Obama administration has very little support internationally for a unilateral strike. At this point, only France – the former colonial power which occupied Syria for several decades in the early twentieth century – appears to be seriously considering directly supporting U.S. military action. Unlike the 1999 bombing of Serbia, which had the support of most NATO countries, and the 2011 bombing of Libya, which had the support of most of the Arab League, neither of these organizations supports a U.S. bombing of Syria. This lack of support is all the more striking when considering that the savage repression by the Syrian regime, including the apparent use of chemical weapons, has resulted in Damascus having very few remaining defenders in the international community. Having the United States once again engaged in a war against a much smaller country on the far side of the world which is no threat to us in violation of international legal norms can only strengthen anti-American sentiments and further isolate the US as a rogue superpower, regardless of how horrific the actions of the targeted regime which may have prompted it. The result will be a further decline in the credibility and influence of the United States diplomatically.
8) The American public opposes military intervention in Syria
While not every policy decision should be based on polls, the unique sacrifices and potential risks that come from military action make it particularly important that such a decision not be made against the will of the American public. According to recent polls, 60 percent of Americans oppose US military intervention in Syria. Recent political history has defied conventional wisdom that it is politically-safer to take hawkish positions on war and peace: Votes by then-Sen. Kerry and Hillary Clinton in October 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq largely were responsible for the loss of their presidential bids in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Members of Congress need to know that there will be political consequences for supporting what could be another unpopular and potentially disastrous US military intervention in the Middle East.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies.