September 3, 2013

Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

By Max Fisher / The Washington Post

(Continued from page 3)

The one political option, which the Obama administration has been pushing for, would be for the Assad regime and the rebels to strike a peace deal. But there's no indication that either side is interested in that, or that there's even a viable unified rebel movement with which to negotiate.

It's possible that there was a brief window for a Libya-style military intervention early on in the conflict. But we'll never really know.

7. So why would Obama bother with strikes that no one expects to actually solve anything?

OK, you're asking here about the Obama administration's not-so-subtle signals that it wants to launch some cruise missiles at Syria, maybe with the United Kingdom, which it says would be punishment for Assad's strongly suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.

It's true that basically no one believes that this will turn the tide of the Syrian war. But this is important: it's not supposed to. The strikes wouldn't be meant to shape the course of the war or to topple Assad, which Obama thinks would just make things worse anyway. They would be meant to punish Assad for (allegedly) using chemical weapons and to deter him, or any future military leader in any future war, from using them again.

8. Come on, what's the big deal with chemical weapons? Assad kills 100,000 people with bullets and bombs but we're freaked out over 1,000 who maybe died from poisonous gas? That seems silly.

You're definitely not the only one who thinks the distinction is arbitrary and artificial. But there's a good case to be made that this is a rare opportunity, at least in theory, for the U.S. to make the war a little bit less terrible - and to make future wars less terrible.

The whole idea that there are rules to war is a pretty new one: the practice of war is thousands of years old, but the idea that we can regulate war to make it less terrible has been around for less than a century. The institutions that do this are weak and inconsistent; the rules are frail and not very well observed. But one of the world's few quasi-successes is the "norm" (a fancy way of saying a rule we all agree to follow) against chemical weapons. This norm is frail enough that Syria could drastically weaken it if we ignore Assad's use of them, but it's also strong enough that it's worth protecting. So it's sort of a low-hanging fruit: firing a few cruise missiles doesn't cost us much and can maybe help preserve this really hard-won and valuable norm against chemical weapons.

You didn't answer my question. That just tells me that we can maybe preserve the norm against chemical weapons, not why we should.

Fair point. Here's the deal: war is going to happen. It just is. But the reason that the world got together in 1925 for the Geneva Convention to ban chemical weapons is because this stuff is really, really good at killing civilians but not actually very good at the conventional aims of warfare, which is to defeat the other side. You might say that they're maybe 30 percent a battlefield weapon and 70 percent a tool of terror. In a world without that norm against chemical weapons, a military might fire out some sarin gas because it wants that battlefield advantage, even if it ends up causing unintended and massive suffering among civilians, maybe including its own. And if a military believes its adversary is probably going to use chemical weapons, it has a strong incentive to use them itself. After all, they're fighting to the death.

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