Once again the “something must be done” brigade has taken charge. The cruise missiles being readied for strikes against targets unspecified in Syria will carry the message of “accountability.”
CBS News reports:
There was no debate at the Saturday meeting [of President Obama’s national security team] that a military response is necessary. Obama ordered up legal justifications for a military strike, should he order one, outside of the United Nations Security Council. That process is well underway, and particular emphasis is being placed on alleged violations of the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
And the chances that those legal justifications might not be found? Zero. (It’s worth noting that Syria, like Israel, is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.)
An American intelligence official told Foreign Policy the other day that this was — and presumably remains — the U.S. position on Syria: “As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything.”
That “certain level” presumably meant a relative level. No doubt that level was never going to be specified but from what one can infer from the historical record it meant that if the daily death toll remained in the dozens to low hundreds and Syrians were being killed by conventional weapons, then whatever the absolute body count — be it 100,000 or 200,000 or even 1,000,000 — the United States would do nothing.
With the use of chemical weapons, it appears that Bashar al-Assad has crossed the threshold of an acceptable number of dead and method of killing and so the U.S. and its allies are ready to launch cruise missiles — armed of course with conventional warheads — to impose some form of accountability on the Syrian regime.
The killing can continue, but the further use of chemical weapons is forbidden. Syrians will soon be able to sleep somewhat more comfortably (so long as they don’t get killed by U.S. cruise missiles), reassured that they are less at risk of dying from asphyxiation but still at risk of getting blown up or buried under rubble as their homes are destroyed under artillery fire.
Obama et al can claim they sent a message without having thrust their respective countries directly into another war. Or to be more precise that the West will have only made a cameo appearance in the war in Syria. Widespread public opposition to military intervention will most likely be sufficiently placated by witnessing that direct intervention turned out to be brief.
Indeed, as the cruise missile message is currently being crafted, the focus is on punishment, not intervention.
As the Associated Press reports:
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.
“We continue to believe that there’s no military solution here that’s good for the people, and that the best path forward is a political solution,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that.”
Bashar al-Assad, having been forcibly instructed in the international norms that cannot be violated will presumably continue engaging in those actions that were normal before last week’s chemical attacks and have occurred without interruption every day since: 148 people killed today, 80 on Sunday, 114 on Saturday, 86 on Friday, 115 on Thursday — the kinds of death toll that Western governments and the populations they represent can comfortably ignore.