Spark To Ignite a Bigger War? The Syrian Conflict and the Role of the US

By: Brittany Moore

On September 24, 2013, Tony Ketron, Professor at CSL, spoke on the United States’ involvement in the current civil war in Syria. Ketron’s presentation addressed the legal, political, and international implications of U.S. military involvement.

The current civil war in Syria began over two years ago. The United Nations reports over 115,000 casualties and millions of refugees being displaced so far.[1] The spark of the current state of affairs in Syria can most prominently be traced back to 2011, with the Arab Spring that took over the region. The Arab Spring is the violent and non-violent protests and revolutions consuming the Middle East region to thwart the current governmental structures that are oppressing the people in favor of a more democratic governmental structure. Soon, Syria became engulfed with political and civil unrest as protesters sought to overthrow the current Baathist regime. Then on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government used chemical agents on the citizens of Syria in and around the capital of Damascus.

So what does this have to do with the U.S.? The role of the U.S. relates to Syria’s non-compliance with two treaties. The first treaty is the 1925 Treaty, which simply bans the use of poisonous gases in warfare. At the time the treaty was signed, Syria was still under the control of France, and did not sign the treaty. This means that Syria would be able to use poisonous gases, such as sarin, sulfur, and mustard gases in domestic and international warfare. However, through customary international law, a state which accepts without opposition the customary and general practices regarding international affairs and humanitarian laws is seen as accepting and being subject to the 1925 Treaty, which Syria has done until recently.

The second treaty is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, colloquially referred to as the Chemical Weapons Convention (“CWC”). The CWC aims to eliminate weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer, or use of chemical weapons.[2] Under the CWC, the Chemical Weapons Commission is to report UN countries that do not comply with the CWC by possessing or transferring chemical weapons in some manner.

The U.S. has two main concerns regarding the use of WMD’s in Syria. The first concern is that this type of technology will be used by terrorists suspected by the U.S. to reside in Syria. Second, the current conflict in Syria poses a real threat of spilling over the borders which would harm U.S. Allies such as Israel and the strategic interests of the U.S. and sparking a much bigger war. “We need to be very, very careful on how we proceed and we need to have a clearly defined objective,” said Ketron. Conflicts within this region have typically involved various overriding cultural issues, most notably religious views, strategic interests, and a history of conflict dating back thousands of years.

Initially, President Obama approached Congress seeking approval for military force, if necessary, to disarm Syria of their chemical weapons. However, this drew a lot of criticism because President Obama is authorized under the War Powers Act to independently authorize the use of military force for a period of 90 days in order to secure U.S. strategic interests and arguably Article II of the United States. Criticism has come not only come from Congress and the American people (approximately 72% of Americans are against any U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict[3]), but also from other countries. Russia and Great Britain have stated they will not participate or endorse military force being used to address the Syrian Conflict. “The U.S. has set a precedent of acting alone to further our international views; Iraq conflict, Desert Storm, and World War I,’ said Ketron. A student asked “if President Obama were to exercise his independent power to employ military force in Syria would it potentially open up the door for World War III?” Ketron responded, “that probably won’t happen, but we can’t be sure. Using force now would be jumping the gun.”

On September 20, 2013, Syria and Russia entered into a treaty that has derailed the possibility of using U.S. military force in Syria. Ketron explained that this treaty essentially provides that Syria will disclose and release any and all chemical weapons in its possession for destruction or disposal. Additionally, the treaty provides for the inspection 45 sites suspected of producing or storing chemical weapons in Syria. Russian and U.S. officials, with oversight by the UN, are to conduct the inspections beginning in November with destruction of those weapons to be complete by 2014. Ketron explained that “Right now active U.S. involvement most likely will be limited to assisting with the site inspections and the destruction or disposal of chemical weapons.”

Why do we care about the Syrian conflict? We care for two main reasons. First, as a practical matter, the U.S. is a major world leader that prides itself on championing democracy, justice, and furthering humanitarian principles. In connection with the U.S.’s position as a world leader, our economy and the value of the American Dollar influence the affairs and actions of foreign third-world countries. Second, the U.S. has strategic interests in protecting Middle Eastern allies, like Israel, from the proliferation of chemical weapons to terrorist organizations, the spillover effects of chemical agents being used across borders, and the millions of refugees who are currently seeking shelter and safety from the turmoil. “I think we are a stabilizing force for Democracy, even when we aren’t welcome,” said Ketron.

World conflicts arise almost daily, however, it is the manner in which they are handled and resolved which demonstrates the strength of the country, and the world. More often than not the resolution of an international third-world conflict needs the assistance of a world leader to prevent further destruction and conflict. The U.S.’s involvement in Syria, at this point, is to do just that – to prevent further conflict and destruction.

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