Syria Chemical Weapons Are a "Red Line," and America Must Step Up

As the world continues to debate the Syrian civil war and President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene after claims that chemical weapons were used on civilians, there are those who wrongly compare the president’s rationale for wanting to intervene in Syria to the rationale behind America’s two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is true that America invaded Iraq on false claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), but we all know that the war in Afghanistan was a world-sanctioned war after Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network sponsored terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Intervention in Syria is different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because it seems unlikely that evidence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria is based on false intelligence (no world leader wants to repeat the Bush-Blair mistake), and Syria has not yet launched any direct attacks against the U.S. So why does America care? America cares because the United Nations has failed in its role of upholding international peace and security, and civilians are being killed by a crude and barbaric method of warfare condemned by international law. It has been almost three years of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, but the UN Security Council has failed to pass any resolution to solve the problem. The UN Human Rights Council has published detailed reports documenting the Syrian crisis since the beginning. The most recent report offers details of "harrowing experiences of survival detailing grave human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity."

Many have described President Obama’s so-called "red line" against chemical weapons as his personal line in the sand which he must defend to keep his pride. But American national security interests aside, when the president spoke of a red line, he was also speaking in terms of adherence to international law. The frivolous use of chemical weapons against civilians is a red line the international community should defend. The prohibition against chemical weapons is one of the oldest international legal instruments governing the conduct of war, dating from as far back as 1899 to a more current Chemical Weapons Convention. The prohibition against the use of chemical weapons also forms part of customary international law. 

The president’s red line also extends beyond upholding international law, to the very essence of a United Nations. The UN has committed itself to the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) since 2005 when it concluded that the international community, through the UN, has a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The truth is that all things being equal the U.S. should not be unilaterally engaging in Syria, but if the U.S. doesn’t who would? Many in the international community are appalled by the atrocities in Syria, but no concrete actions have been undertaken so far to achieve peace.  As President Obama stated in his first major speech on the Syrian crisis, “If we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we must acknowledge the cost of doing nothing.” It is hypocritical to accuse the president of warmongering while also expressing outrage about international inaction as civilians are gassed. We are forced to choose between military intervention to prevent more atrocities or doing nothing. However, if we do nothing, we must accept the moral consequences of becoming passive spectators to mass murder.

Obama is on point in stating that the world set the red line, not the United States. The president rightfully claims that “governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.” Global inaction in the face of such an assault on human dignity is what the president alluded to when he said, "my credibility is not on the line — the international community's credibility is on the line." Indeed, it is our longtime failure to act and the UN Security Council’s politicking with Syrian lives that has led to the present use of chemicals. No one seems to recognize the irony of doing nothing and disregarding war crimes just so we can recite our regular creed for the aftermath of every major preventable atrocity: "Never Again."

Maybe this is another case of Iraq, but as someone who was abandoned by the international community in two armed conflicts, I hear echoes of the cry for America like I did few years ago in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Liberians resorted to dumping their dead bodies at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia to show us that we were all guilty by our inaction. The UN is the moral authority of the world, but when that moral authority is demoralized by political trading on the lives of civilians in need of their help, then the world needs America to uphold international law.violations.

As President Obama stated, “a country faces few decisions as grave as using military force even when that force is limited.” And so it should be, but if that decision means we can prevent an estimated 5,000 Syrian deaths per month and the further use of chemical weapons, then there is no greater cause for humanity in the 21st century.   

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Joseph Kaifala

Joseph Ben Kaifala is founder of the Jeneba Project Inc. and co-founder of the Sierra Leone Memory Project. He was born in Sierra Leone and spent his early childhood in Liberia and Guinea. He later moved to Norway where he studied for the International Baccalaureate (IB) at the Red Cross Nordic United World College before enrolling at Skidmore College in New York. Joseph was an International Affairs & French Major, with a minor in Law & Society. Joseph is also a Human Rights activist, a Rastafarian, and a votary of ahimsa. He speaks six languages. Joseph has served as a Davis United World College Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; a Humanity In Action Senior Fellow; and a Tom Lantos-HIA US Congressional Fellow. He holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Syracuse University, a Diploma in Intercultural Encounters from the Helsinki Summer School, and a Certificate in Professional French administered by the French Chamber of Commerce. Joseph was an Applied Human Rights Fellow at Vermont Law School, where he completed his JD and Certificate in International & Comparative Law. He is recipient of the Skidmore College Palamountain Prose Award, Skidmore College Thoroughbred Award, and Vermont Law School (SBA) Student Pro Bono Award. Joseph is a 2013-2014 American Society of International Law Helton Fellow. He served as Justice of the Arthur Chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity International.

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