A Syrian Chemical Attack: Is America Obligated to Act?

The recent news that the U.S. and NATO warned the Syrian regime about the repercussions of using chemical weapons against rebel forces, prompted me to wonder—is the United States obligated to further involve itself in the Syrian civil war if the regime uses chemical weapons against its own people? And, if the answer to that is a “yes,” then to what extent?

President Hafez al-Asad of Syria (centre, background) at an Arab Summit in Baghdad in November 1978. Standing near him, having a separate conversation, are Iraqi President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (centre, foreground), beside him Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Vice-President, Lebanese Prime Minister Saleem al-Hoss (right). Hussein was responsible for the 1988 chemical attacks on Iraq’s own Kurdish population, during which the international community failed to act. Now Assad’s son, the current leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is posed to engage in a similar massacre with his own population. How will the international community react this time around?

Dealing with a Baathist regime that used chemical weapons against its own people is not new for the United States. In 1988, the Saddam Hussein-led regime in Iraq orchestrated a chemical weapons attack on its Kurdish population in the northern city of Halabja, resulting in between 3,200 to 5,000 deaths and 7,000 to 10,000 injured, mainly civilian. At the time, America’s response to the massacre was close to nonexistent. Iraq was an ally against the newly theocratic, anti-western Iranian regime and U.S. statesmen saw little utility in the Iraqi Kurds regarding U.S. national interest at the time.

To say this was a humanitarian failure for the United States and other global powers is an understatement.

So how should the U.S. handle this most recent prospect of a tyrannical regime using chemical weapons on its own people? First, is there any international or domestic legal obligation to do anything about it?

There is nothing necessarily legally binding in international law that definitively requires the United States or international community to act. Most WMD-related international law involves treaties, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, that Syria never signed. Nor could international bodies like NATO necessarily act in defense of another state as Syria’s conflict remains internal, although there has been some spill-over into Turkey.

Domestically, the United States is reviewing passage of a bill requiring the U.S. to identify, recover and dispose of “all known weapons stockpiles of the Government of Syria, with particular focus on biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons and missiles.” Yet this mainly refers to a post-Assad Syria and doesn’t elucidate further on the question of U.S. responsibility in preventing WMD attacks within Syria.

Back on the international scene, some may argue that a case could be made for possible genocide, forcing UN members to respond in accord with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Specifically, as the Syrian conflict has grown more sectarian in nature, one could contend that a chemical attack against rebel forces and their corresponding communities would overly target and affect Syrian Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Yet this argument remains murky as the conflict is not completely a sectarian one and others could argue against the Syrian regime’s intent to exterminate its opposition populations as opposed to using the chemical attacks as a means to prompt rebel surrender.

The United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative may also be an imperative to act. It could easily be argued that Syria has forfeited its sovereignty after targeting its own population with weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, other atrocities have fallen under the genocide and R2P categories before—the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, the tribal massacres in Darfur—and the United States and other powers did nothing, as they were not seen to be in their national interest to get involved.

Hopefully, however, if actions in Libya are indicative of future policy, both the United States and other global powers will continue to move away from the amoral realpolitik policies of the past and towards a more moral, humanitarian global consensus.

In this case, is there a moral responsibility to intervene in prevention of chemical attacks against Syrian civilians?

First let us list some reasons why the wrong type of intervention may not be the best answer:

  • Occupying a religiously and ethnically eclectic Middle Eastern nation that borders Iran and retains strong Iranian influence in certain regions has not gone well for the U.S.
  • Encouraging a power vacuum in such a diverse area with an array of growing internal conflicts could result in further internal wars, with more death and destruction to come
  • The United States could unwittingly empower Sunni jihadists who have taken a more prominent role in the Syrian insurgency

These are all extremely valid concerns. Yet, I’m again taken back to Halabja. How can we on the left be ideologically consistent, morally coherent, if we condemn inaction to prevent the chemical attacks of Kurdish civilians in one instance yet promote inaction in the face of future chemical attacks against more Kurdish civilians in addition to Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Circassian and Turkmen civilians?

For this reason I believe that, if a chemical attack is deemed to be imminent, the United States is morally obligated to act—yet act in a limited manner, similar to as in Libya, without a large-scale occupation (as was done in Iraq) and with a guiding diplomatic hand to mitigate future sectarian conflict and build up Syrian civil society anew.

Anything less would be another humanitarian failure that we cannot afford to allow in our modern age.


  1. […] Syrian government may have used weapons of mass destruction against its own people in the form of chemical weapons. This news has brought the civil war to the forefront of the American news because of the potential […]