The central issue that should concern us when it comes to the chemical weapons crisis in Syria is not the identity of the perpetrator but which international body responds to such a crisis.
What we are looking at in the current situation is the Obama administration (following from its predecessors) ignoring international law when it fails to suit their strategic objectives. Instead, again like its predecessors, the administration has decided to follow the law of the ‘star chamber,’—a body that sees itself above the law, is unaccountable, and believes itself capable of making and implementing any decision it deems appropriate—that is, the law of the self-appointed, akin to vigilante ‘justice.’
In some respects, the issues at stake are simple and clear. International law instructs us that a nation can use military means when it has been attacked or when facing imminent attack. There are no exceptions outside of agreed upon international actions through institutions such as the United Nations. Every argument made by the Obama administration fails this test. It suggests that the gravity of the killings in the chemical weapons attack in Syria should lead us to ignore international law in the name of taking a stand against a cruel action. This argument is simply flawed.
There are cruel actions, in fact, criminal violations of international law that take place on a regular basis across this planet. In Palestine, there is an open ignoring of international law when it comes to the so-called separation (apartheid) wall established by the Israelis, not to mention the illegal Israeli settlements on occupied land.
No cruise missiles have hit Israel.
There is, in other words, a selective approach by the administration when it comes to the question of at what moment military means are appropriate in response to violations of international human rights law. In the current situation, the administration is simply dead wrong.
There have been many progressives who have engaged in a debate as to whether the chemical attack was carried out by Assad’s forces or the rebels. While I think that it is quite probable that it was carried out by Assad’s forces, especially in light of the sorts of military activities in which it has engaged, that is not the central discussion to have right now. The central point at this moment is that it is not up to the U.S.A. to play global ‘cop’. It is up to international bodies to investigate the situation and recommend action.
Should the U.S. wish to play a constructive role, it should take the advice that so many have been offering: work with the Russians and other stakeholders to achieve a political settlement of the Syrian civil war. Naked aggression in violation of international law brings us no closer to a constructive resolution of this chemical weapons incident, or the Syrian civil war itself.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.