The Syrian problem — and an international solution
Let us consider the worst: that, in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the subsequent Chemical Weapons Convention, the Syrian government has used chemical weapons to massacre large numbers of people. If true, that is a real problem, for it is not only a dastardly act, but a clear violation of international law that, if left unopposed, will encourage further use of these abhorrent weapons.
But will the US government’s lobbing cruise missiles into Syria provide a solution to the problem? That seems unlikely, for that action will not topple the Syrian government, eliminate that regime’s large chemical weapons stockpile, or hasten an end to the brutal Syrian civil war which provided (and still provides) the context for their use. Indeed, unilateral US military action seems likely to add to the bloodshed in Syria, worsen US relations with the Syrian regime’s major arms supplier and defender (Russia), and further inflame the volatile Middle East. Once again, the US government will be acting like a Wild West vigilante and will face very dangerous consequences.
In recent decades, many people around the world have grown accustomed to seeing the United States behave like a trigger-happy nation, intervening militarily whenever its officials feel US “national interests” are threatened. Rallying around the flag, many Americans have come to perceive the United States as a uniquely virtuous country — the savior of the world or, at least, the world’s policeman. At the same time, many other people, often in foreign lands, have concluded that the United States is the world’s bully.
But however one views the unilateral employment of US military power, it is unsustainable. No nation has sufficient worldwide credibility or resources to rule the world. Despite the demagogic, flag-waving ranting of many cynical US politicians and pundits, increasing numbers of Americans realize this and, consequently, are willing to pass along global responsibility and burdens to a global organization.
For better or worse, that global organization is the United Nations, to which the nations of the world (including the United States) have granted the formal authority for enforcing international law. In response to the international anarchy and vast destruction of World War II, the United Nations came out of the war with the official goal of providing the world with some degree of governance, especially in relation to matters of war and peace. Thus, the United Nations is the organization that should be calling the tune in Syria — not only responding to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but facilitating an end to Syria’s terrible civil war, which has expanded into a regional conflict.
Yes, the United Nations is pathetically weak, largely because, in the post-1945 era, the “great powers” have clung greedily to their bloated national prerogatives on the world scene. Crippled by this very limited support to it from the major military-industrial powers, the United Nations has all too often been unable to enforce international law or to carry out the many other tasks of a world organization. But it does have worldwide credibility and an internationally-recognized voice that individual governments cannot entirely ignore. In addition, if the major powers threw their support behind a strengthening of the United Nations, that organization could become a very important force for disarmament and peace.
In the Syrian situation, for example — as one of the world’s oldest peace organizations, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has proposed — UN inspectors could be empowered to complete their investigation of whether chemical weapons were used and, then, to determine who used them. Meanwhile, a UN Security Council resolution could be sought to secure the turnover to the United Nations of any chemical weapons in possession of the warring parties. The Russian government, although a strong supporter of the Syrian regime, might well agree to this, as it has long supported prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, the Security Council could refer the issue of chemical weapons use to the International Criminal Court, which could further investigate and indict the perpetrators. At the same time, the United Nations could convene a peace conference that would bring together representatives of all groups on the ground, countries in the region, and the United States and Russia to negotiate a ceasefire and a political resolution to the bloody Syrian conflict.
Would this kind international approach work? Perhaps so; perhaps not. But it seems at least as promising a route toward the enforcement of international law and the implementation of a peaceful settlement to the war in Syria as simply raining more bombs upon that nation. And it would be considerably less destructive. Finally, it is the kind of approach to which the nations of the world have at least given lip service — unlike a military attack upon Syria without UN authorization, which would itself be a violation of international law.
Of course, this sort of international approach would require that nations, particularly the major powers, stop their military meddling in other lands and turn over a bit of their precious sovereignty to the United Nations, as they had promised to do when creating it back in 1945. But a more peaceful, better-governed world would be well worth that price, wouldn’t it?
Lawrence S. Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His many books include Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).]