Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Camille GrandDirector, Fondation pour la recherche stratégique

There are three good reasons for bombing Syria.

First, the recent chemical attacks are not just another step in President Bashar al-Assad’s terror strategy; they are a game changer. There have been only five confirmed chemical weapons attacks by states since the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of such arms (and none since the attack against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988). This protocol, to which Syria is a signatory, is part of customary international humanitarian law. The principal purpose of a military strike against Syria would therefore be to restore the taboo on the use of chemical weapons and to consolidate a regime of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, undermined by the Syrian attacks.

Second, the West needs to restore the credibility it has lost thanks to its as yet unenforced redline policy, which explicitly refers to the use of chemical weapons as a cause for action. This goes far beyond Syria itself. Others, including Iran and North Korea, are carefully watching the international community’s inability to act. In the coming days, the West is putting at stake its capacity to enforce some of the most important norms in the fields of nonproliferation and international humanitarian law. More broadly, if the United States, France, and their allies were not to act, it would send a terrible signal to all potential adversaries and create serious distrust among their friends and allies, particularly in the Middle East.

Third, a limited, short-term strike involving cruise missiles would have limited risks, as it would be proportionate with the seriousness of the chemical weapons attack without starting a protracted air campaign. Such a strike could also diminish the Assad regime’s military capabilities, therefore rebalancing the military situation on the ground and, hopefully, increasing chances of a settlement.


Sean KayProfessor of politics and government, Ohio Wesleyan University

Why bomb Syria? Good question—especially when a better option exists.

The Obama administration’s case for cruise missile attacks on Syrian targets is not intended to tip the balance in the Syrian civil war or to remove the Assad regime. Rather, it is to uphold the norm that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited.

Bombing is a mistake that risks setting off dangerous consequences. Assad might see it as an excuse for intensified crackdowns on civilians in rebel areas, and it might further exacerbate the refugee situation in Lebanon and Jordan. A bombing campaign would also draw the United States into a civil war with no vital U.S. interests, little allied support, and strong domestic opposition. In fact, being drawn into the Syrian civil war arguably plays into Iran’s hands, by weakening the United States in the region and dividing Washington and its allies.

A better option exists that can accomplish the West’s goals without immediately resorting to war. The United States should present intelligence to the UN and seek a referral from the International Criminal Court for war crimes indictments against members of the Syrian chain of command.

This process would strengthen international norms on chemical weapons and justice while acting as a deterrent against their future use. It would offer the possibility of bringing the United States and its European allies (and possibly Russia) closer together. And it would allow America to lead the international community, rather than launching a dubious war without a UN mandate that would isolate the United States.


Daniel KeohaneHead of strategic affairs, Foundation for International Relations

The argument to bomb Syria should be easy. Chemical weapons have been used, the redline has been crossed, bombs away. But it is not so easy. The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent (and illegal), but so are 100,000 deaths since March 2011.

At least two conditions need to be met before any bombings. First, the evidence that the Assad regime used these weapons must be watertight. Second, even if a UN Security Council resolution currently seems unlikely, international support is required beyond Paris, London, and Washington—preferably from NATO and the Arab League. Even then, military experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of precision strikes. Civilians may be killed, and strikes may not prevent the further use of chemical weapons.

Paradoxically, the strategic context provides both the strongest and weakest arguments for bombing Syria. U.S. international credibility is on the line, so Washington probably has to bomb Assad’s chemical dumps. But it is not clear what the United States ultimately wants to achieve in Syria. Nor is it obvious what consequences strikes would have for regional stability and increasingly antagonistic relationships with Russia, China, and Iran.

Because of all this, Western publics are understandably skeptical about military intervention. But expect the credibility argument to win out, and for the United States to bomb Syria.


Roderick ParkesHead of the EU Program, Polish Institute of International Affairs

The West would bomb Syria to express its moral outrage and, as scholars like Johan Galtung and David Baldwin have argued, retribution is grounds enough in international affairs. But it would also bomb Syria because it is hypocritical and because Syrian civilians have only now gained the Chomskyan status of “worthy victims”—that is, victims of our enemies.

The West would bomb Syria because it has an interest in asserting itself in the region. But it would also bomb Syria because it’s prepared to ignore its interest in minimizing military interventions—not to mention in maximizing the chances of a mutually damaging struggle between Iran’s proxies and al-Qaeda.

The West would bomb Syria to prevent the UN from being reduced to a talking shop. But it would also bomb Syria despite the fact that this could undermine the UN and push power to even less effective bodies like the G20.

The West would bomb Syria because restricting itself to a proxy war waged through the rebels is not enough. But it would also bomb Syria because it’s not prepared to take real action and send in troops.

In short, with the end of U.S. supremacy—let alone the happy ideological certainties of the Cold War—there is no more clarity of motive. Decisionmakers are increasingly left with a simple reductive choice: to act or not to act. If the West do act, perhaps it will find out something about itself and the wider world. Then the trick will be to come up with a convincing explanation for its actions and make it stick next time.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

In short, the West should bomb Syria because it said it would. But it needs a clear roadmap for doing so.

U.S. President Barack Obama was obliged to launch a military raid against Syria after he demanded regime change in 2011 and then issued an ultimatum against the use of chemical weapons in 2012. Backpedaling after the debacle of the British “no” vote on military action and growing opposition in Congress will severely undermine Obama’s credibility vis-à-vis Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah.

The combination of diplomacy and the use of force is always a political choice. Obama bluffed, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not blink, and then Obama’s allies abandoned him. Paradoxically, the president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his “multilateral diplomacy” is now even more isolated than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was accused of unilateralism but was supported during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the UK, Spain, Poland, and Italy.

Obama may yet pull off a Hail Mary should Congress vote for his Syria plans. Yet a bizarre coalition of Tea Party congressmen, conservative Republicans, and liberal Democrats may serve him the same bitter medicine that the UK Labour Party and Tories weary of former premier Tony Blair concocted last week for Prime Minister David Cameron.

The U.S. president said that the use of nerve gas by Assad would be a line in the sand not to be crossed. Little did he know that he was talking about quicksand—not easy terrain to venture across without the compass of a clear, strong, and rational strategy.


James RogersSenior editor of European Geostrategy and lecturer in international relations, Baltic Defence College

Syria” should not be bombed, but President Bashar al-Assad should be punished. His regime is suspected of having unleashed chemical weapons against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus a fortnight ago. The result? Over 1,000 people murdered in the first state-based chemical weapons attack of the twenty-first century.

The West cannot allow this to stand. The taboo against the use of chemical weapons—or any weapons of mass destruction—must be reasserted. Otherwise, we may witness the use of chemical weapons more frequently, particularly by unstable regimes in crisis-prone regions of the world. The consequences are unthinkable.

Ultimately, autocracies understand force alone. The Assad regime is one of only a handful which has used chemical weapons against civilians. Punishing the regime is not about intervening in the Syrian civil war: it is about deterring the use of gas bombs and nerve agents in the future.

Once unleashed, dictators rarely show self-restraint. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 is evidence of that. As the sorrowful history of modern Iraq has shown, it is better to act sooner rather than later.

The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director, Transatlantic Academy

This question is really one for the United States alone, following the vote by the UK House of Commons not to authorize British involvement in any military action in Syria.

Just because U.S. President Barack Obama has talked himself into a corner with his rhetoric about redlines, that is not a reason to commit the United States to another war of choice without international support and when there is no clear threat to U.S. national security.

The West and most of the Arab world has already tolerated the massive loss of life in Syria, while a prevous U.S. administration indirectly supported the use of chemical weapons by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein against Iran.

The best the West can do now is to do no further harm. American credibility, which is now the issue in Washington, will be damaged, not enhanced, by bombing Syria. Military action will either not do enough and will leave Assad in power, or it will do too much and lead to unpredictable consequences.


Sylke TempelEditor in chief of Internationale Politik, German Council on Foreign Relations

There is one thing that holds true in both politics and parenting: if you set redlines, you had better make clear that crossing them will have serious consequences. If you can’t muster the determination to do that, you might not want to set redlines in the first place. If you already have, then you need to be very smart in order not to make a fool of yourself. And making a fool of yourself is not very advisable if you are a global superpower that wants a say in world politics.

In the case of Syria, that means: stop zigzagging, Obama! Get sound evidence that the Assad regime was behind the recent sarin gas attacks. Make sure you have credible allies. Take the time you need to prepare, since you must do your utmost to avoid civilian casualties. And then hit Assad where it hurts: costly weapons systems, elite army units, even his palace.


Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar, Carnegie Europe

There are two fundamental reasons why the international community should engage in a military strike against Syria.

The first is deterrence. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime should be prevented from using chemical weapons in the future. If the international community does not issue a strong reaction to the first wide-scale use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime might be tempted to use these unlawful weapons again in future.

The second reason has to do with maintaining global norms. The use of chemical weapons was prohibited by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 in the wake of the tragedies of the First World War. This ban has since become a strong international norm. Although the protocol has no enforcement provisions and Syria is not a party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons as well as their use, the international community must respond to the flagrant violation of such an ethical rule.

Failing to react would severely handicap the international community’s ability to protect the system of values at the heart of the current global order.