We Can’t Do Nothing About Chemical Weapons in Syria

I am not pro-war. I am very much anti-war. But as long as there are evil bastards in the world, there will continue to be wars. That means, we have to be vigilant about preventing war, and we have to be aggressive in stopping people who would start a war. Sometimes, as distasteful as it may seem, that means taking military action. If taking military action saves lives in the long run, that is a pacifist move. Killing Hitler and/or Stalin early on would have been a violent act, but it would have been a peaceful result that may have saved millions of lives. Peace is not an absolute, all-or-nothing proposition. Sometimes, it’s a choice.

What does the above paragraph have to do with Syria? Absolutely nothing. And that’s the point. That’s why I support President Obama’s motives and his likely approach to the relevant issue right now, which is not Assad, or Syrian rebels, but the use of chemical weapons.

Almost two weeks ago, someone in Syria unleashed a chemical attack on innocent people who were just going about their day. In all, at least 1,429 were killed, including 426 children. That is not an act of war, it’s an act of terrorism. Civilians as collateral damage is one thing; this is not that. By most accounts, it appears sarin gas was used. To illustrate the difference between a bullet or death by sarin gas, here’s a description of the effects from James Hamblin in The Atlantic from a few months ago (the article has a full description of how sarin works, so read it):

Within seconds of exposure to sarin gas (or liquid, which evaporates easily), we start to notice the immediate effects of acetylcholine buildup. First, our smooth muscles and secretions go crazy. The nerves to those areas keep firing, keep telling them to go. The nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves. It is not a dignified state.

Since sarin has no smell or taste, the person may very well have no idea what’s going on. Their chest tightens, vision blurs. If the exposure was great enough, that can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within 1 to 10 minutes.

It’s a gruesome way to die, and a cowardly way to kill someone in a war. Whether or not it’s worse than other atrocities that have been committed in this war is open to debate. But chemical weapons are portable, and they are specifically against the law. And by most accounts, it looks as if the Assad regime was responsible for the cowardly attack. While nothing is definitive, this view is supported by Assad’s mocking reaction to President Obama’s desire to launch a limited military strike in response to the chemical weapons attack:

“The American threats of launching an attack against Syria will not discourage Syria away from its principles … or its fight against terrorism supported by some regional and Western countries, first and foremost the United States of America.” (source)

While there is a cultural component to Assad’s reaction, there has been no hint of condolence for the innocent Syrians who were massacred by the attack. But that’s neither here nor there. What Obama plans to do has nothing to do with Assad, or the rebels, many of whom are just as bad as he is..It has nothing  It has to do with the use of chemical weapons. They are against international law, they violate human rights, and they are particularly cruel. I know many of you think all war conduct is the same, it’s not. Striking military targets with bombs is not the same as using a water cannon to spray a crowd with chemicals designed to kill civilians. The latter is terrorism, not legitimate warfare. It’s only slightly different than rounding up civilians, taking them to a camp and gassing them to death. It’s not part of “legitimate” warfare.

It is really difficult to know what we should do in this situation. I know this is above our ability and pay grade. But we can’t do nothing. Which is why I think Obama’s basic plan, as he has articulated it (if you have bothered to listen closely) is brilliant. We have to go after chemical weapons stockpiles, and we have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t look as if we’re taking sides. And we have to minimize civilian casualties in the process, or such an action goes against its stated purpose, which is to save lives. Zero civilian casualties would be nice, and it’s possible, but it’s also possible (likely?) Assad will station people around the chemicals to “protect” them. But we will not be starting another war. It will be a limited action, not an open-ended commitment. It will be even more limited than Libya because, we don’t have dog in the hunt.

And yes, it’s a remote possibility that a military action against Assad’s chemical weapons cache will unleash another chemical attack. But what do you think will happen if we do nothing? Do you think he’ll never do it again, if he knows there will be no response? I guarantee another attack if we do nothing.

If you are one of those who has been complaining about the lethality of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen for years, I question your commitment to peace.  Keep in mind, that single chemical attack took the lives of 1,429 civilians, including 426 children.  Through he entire ten year life of drone attacks, fewer than 950 civilians have died, including less than 200 children. (source) If you are working hard to stop drone strikes in order to save lives, how do you justify allowing Assad off the hook, just because it might cost a handful of lives to stop him from adding thousands more to the death toll?

I’m not a fan of war, but I do care about innocent Syrians and others who are caught in the crossfire. In war, there are rules, and there are laws in place to protect innocent people. When someone – whether it’s Assad or the al Qaeda-backed rebels – is allowed to violate those laws with impunity, we are all in grave danger.

Doing nothing is not an option right now.

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