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Morality and U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

When Syrian warplanes allegedly dropped deadly Sarin gas on a village in northern Syria, and videos showed men, women and many children dying from the suffocating effects of the gas, President Donald Trump said he was horrified. Within days he ordered air strikes on the airbase from which the Syrian planes had reportedly taken off to drop their deadly load. The retaliatory strike was aimed at sending a message to Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, that, if he used chemical weapons, the U.S. would punish him, militarily.

I’m almost uniformly against using military means to send messages to solve problems, partly because they invariably involve killing, and partly because they almost inevitably lead to further military confrontation. As military strikes go, however, this was a relatively benign one. Probably due to the U.S. having communicated to Russians and apparently some others that the strikes were coming, the death toll from the strike was reported to be 15. The Syrian government reported that 6 military were killed and 9 civilians from surrounding villages, although those numbers are not confirmed.

It is important to know if civilians were actually killed and if, as the Syrians reported, the deaths were from errant missiles, since American reports from both official and unofficial, usually retired, military sources described the missiles as having “pinpoint accuracy,” and we have seen before that such accuracy is exaggerated by the military and collateral damage  almost always accompanies any air attack. While it is clear that the target was the airbase infrastructure not people, deaths of civilians modifies any assessment of the morality of such an attack and can even nullify it.

While rhetoric at home in the U.S. either applauds President Trump for “standing up” to Assad and defending the immorality and illegality of chemical warfare, or castigates the president for “escalating” the war by attacking Syria for the first time, the issue deserves more careful thought than knee-jerk praise or condemnation. A one-off, mostly symbolic attack to demonstrate a “red line” across which Assad should not again step, an attack that was aimed at military infrastructure and not people, may be a good thing, particularly if it is effective in stopping the use of chemical weapons, and if it does not lead to further escalation of U.S. involvement in the war. If, as some voices, including John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have urged, it leads to more attacks against Syria’s air installations, it is a bad thing, as they are both being used to fight ISIS and are protected by Russian air defenses. Degrading the Syrian’s ability to fight ISIS or starting a shooting war with Russia are not positive outcomes. Another danger of the airbase attack is that it furthers the premise that constructive U.S. responses to the Syrian struggle are confined to military options.

The only way for the U.S. attack on the Shayrat airbase to be a moral and effective tactic by our country is if the number of civilians killed was actually near zero and the effect on Bashar al Assad is to stop his use of chemical weapons. In addition, it must not lead to any further military engagement with the Syrians or Russians by the U.S.  If any of these conditions are not met, then the attack was wrong. Finally, this attack, since it was outside the AUMF under which Bush and Obama fought terror groups  and was directed at a sovereign nation, required congressional authority and the president needs to come to congress to explain how this fits our current military mission and what he believes that to be.

Reader Comments (1)

A succinct summary Casey. "The issue deserves more careful thought than knee-jerk praise or condemnation" is an important point and seems to be what the majority of people are doing right now - hopefully.
I find myself wishing that one of the networks would invite former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H W Bush (if he were well enough), Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama for a roundtable discussion together. Wouldn't that be amazing? Even though I am a one party person, I'd love to hear the points on which all agree, and I think there would be those points.
I suppose we're always in a time that requires the wisdom of experience, but it seems especially essential now. The whole international situation seems to be way over the collective heads of those in power at the moment, and we seem to be perilously on the brink of something we don't want to hand down to our children.

April 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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