Syria and Obama’s Flawed Logic of Message-Sending

Published in the Toronto Star, September 4, 2013

In announcing his plan last Saturday to put the prospect of Syrian intervention to a Congressional vote, President Obama posed a ringing question to his domestic and global audience: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” Based on the force of this question he may decide to launch air attacks on Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack on civilians in Damascus on August 21, apparently by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

However, Obama has made it clear that such an intervention, if it does occur, would not be a large-scale one aimed at protecting civilians or ending the conflict. Instead, air strikes would be limited, purportedly precise attacks aimed at the more amorphous goal of “sending a message” to Assad and those of his ilk.

The intended messaging varies according to different backers of such strikes, but it’s roughly threefold. First, international action would reinforce the norm that chemical weapons are a specially terrible and forbidden kind of killing. Second, striking Assad’s military and strategic capacities would show that violation of the chemical weapons taboo will be significantly punished. And third, following Obama’s apparently unscripted comment last year that chemical weapon use would be a “red line” drawing a Western response, a military strike would maintain America’s credibility by showing that it follows through on its threats.

As currently framed, then, the prospect of attacking Syria is wrapped up with abstractions of deterrence, punishment and credibility. Their focus is on changing the calculations of Assad and future murderous regimes.

Considered in themselves, those are important goals. (Though there are reasons to think that going to war to protect a nation’s future reputation or credibility is a deeply mistaken strategy.) The importance of serving these abstractions has led Prime Minister Harper – reluctantly, as he said – to lend Canada’s backing to the idea of imminent military intervention by Western countries.

Yet important as message-sending is, it’s even more crucial to look beyond abstractions and principles to people in imminent danger. The most salient fact is that the currently envisioned strikes have no prospect of protecting Syrians inside their country from death by non-chemical weapons. They do have very real prospects of leading to escalated Western involvement and further mass casualties if chemical attacks on civilians continue or if other regional countries join the conflict.

To enter knowingly into these risks, when Western efforts could be focussed instead on political approaches to the Syrian conflict, is to put messaging and hypotheticals ahead of civilians in danger right now. That’s why the International Crisis Group, a global NGO, gets the priorities right when it said in its statement last weekend that “apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people.”

Canada can’t do anything to shape events militarily at this point. But if the U.S. does launch strikes, and if the consequences of those strikes set off drumbeats for greater Western military involvement, the Prime Minister should keep foremost in mind the reasons why, as he said, he was “a very reluctant convert to the idea” of military action. Once the West launches down the misguided and slippery slope of using force to send messages, there’d better be some level heads around to send messages of restraint.

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