Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border Aug. 31. / Gregorio Borgia/AP
The opinion of the RGJ Editorial Board
THE ISSUE: The United States is considering a missile attack on Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons.
OUR VIEW: Just say no.
President Barack Obama’s plan to bomb Syria with cruise missiles is a bad idea.
It says something about U.S. foreign policy that it’s barely a blip in the debate that an attack would be illegal under international law.
An attack must be made in self-defense or approved by the United Nations Security Council. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this week, “The use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and/or when the Security Council approves such action.”
The United States is not under attack by Syria, so self-defense cannot apply.
There’s also a sense of déjà vu over the alleged proof that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.
In 2003, on the brink of another war, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made claims about chemical weapons. He told the Reserve Officers Association that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein “has large, unaccounted-for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, including VX, sarin, mustard gas, anthrax, botulism and possibly smallpox.”
His evidence was wrong.
Consider also Sudan in 1998. The U.S. government, then under President Bill Clinton, launched cruise missiles at a factory in the African nation.
In 2005, the New York Times reported, “American officials have acknowledged over the years that the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected.”
We need to remember the lessons of Iraq and Sudan. The American people deserve better evidence than we’ve been given so far that chemical weapons in Syria were used by its government.
Even if convincing evidence is finally presented, what would be accomplished?
There’s the claim that chemical weapons are so abhorrent, we must exact a punishment to dissuade other leaders from using them.
This originated with an improvised comment from Obama about a “red line” that would trigger U.S. action.
The argument would be stronger if it weren’t for some context that is left out of the administration’s public relations push.
Chemical weapons may have been used by the Syrian rebels back in March. Russia claims to have a 100-page report with detailed evidence to prove it. If true, must we now also bomb the Syrian rebels or risk losing credibility over a humanitarian red line?
What about this headline from the Independent this week: “Revealed: UK government let British company export nerve gas chemicals to Syria”?
Should we bomb Britain for complicity?
We haven’t yet mentioned the United States supplying Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons in the 1980s — and continuing to supply and support him after he killed tens of thousands of Iranians with them, not to mention turning them on his own people, the Kurds in northern Iraq. Should we bomb ourselves?
None of this is to minimize the seriousness of chemical weapons and the need to stop their use. The question is whether a few cruise missiles aimed at Syrian government installations will fulfill that goal.
Obama claims a humanitarian red line has been crossed that demands a forceful response.
This claim, too, would hold more weight if not for missing context. There have been other humanitarian crises involving more lives that the United States has not found it necessary to get involved in.
In 2011, the United Nations warned of a looming famine in Somalia, but the world turned a blind eye, with the U.S. giving only a token few million dollars. In May, the UN released a report on the consequence of this inaction and found 258,000 people died of starvation, including 133,000 children under the age of 5. Nearly 5 percent of the entire population died.
Where was Obama’s demand to stop this humanitarian crisis then?
Even if Obama manages not to get dragged into prolonged involvement, even if the conflict doesn’t widen (remember, Syria has a mutual defense pact with Iran) and even if civilian casualties from the missile strikes are kept at a minimum — all concerns that are far from certain — this doesn’t mean success.
It could galvanize support for Assad because he would then have proof that he’s battling against U.S. interference in Syria.
If instead Assad is weakened, this could easily give a boost to the al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebel group Jubhat al-Nusra or other extremist groups that want control.
In short, a U.S. attack on Syria is a lose-lose situation, and we urge Nevada’s delegation to oppose it.