Why Attack Syria?

Well-designed humanitarian intervention, as well as legal accountability for war crimes and atrocities, can send a strong signal to thugs and tyrants that they must reckon with the values underpinning international law. But conflating these two purposes – to save lives and to mete out justice – could end up undermining both.

NEW YORK – As President Barack Obama makes the case for military intervention by the United States in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, Americans and many others around the world are asking what the objective should be. Is the purpose of using military force to prevent future attacks against Syrian civilians, or is the proper goal to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for violating the law of nations?

So far, Secretary of State John Kerry has invoked both purposes – degrading Syria’s chemical-weapons capacity, as well as ensuring “accountability” and “deterrence” – in advocating US military intervention. But a mission limited to reducing the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons in the future is far more justifiable under international law than a mission conceived as a punitive or law-enforcement action.

Preventing future attacks has a clear humanitarian objective. While some argue that humanitarian intervention is never justified without approval by the United Nations Security Council, the UN Charter itself provides a dubious foundation for this view.

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