Towards daybreak of April 14, 2018, a coalition of countries comprising USA, Britain and France launched more than 100 missiles against Syrian targets in a strike that aimed at weakening President Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.
In the operation, as described by Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US joint staff, the US warships, a submarine and B1 bombers fired missiles as “precise, overwhelming, and effective”.
France also fired missiles from ships and aircraft, while the UK deployed Tornado jets. Targets included a scientific research centre in Damascus and chemical weapons storage and assembly facilities west of Homs.
These strikes were in response to a suspected poison gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma that killed at least 70 people a few weeks back.
The use of chemical weapons, reportedly by the Assad regime, left mothers and fathers, infants and children in excruciating pain and gasping for air. From a humanitarian perspective, it was hugely important to take a military action sending a clear message to the Syrian regime that use of chemical weapons is prohibited under international law.
It was equally absolutely important to resort to military action if the objective was to alleviate the extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their further use, following the carnage in Douma.
No surprise, moreover, the Syrian regime has been linked to killing its own people for seven years. And it has been using chemical weapons since 2013. Its use of chemical weapons hasn’t exacerbated the human suffering as the UK claimed.
From an international law perspective, the use of chemical weapons, like any other widespread killing, is a serious crime of international concern, as a breach of the customary international law prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity.
Let me say that I don’t see military strikes as a solution to the existential problem. It is just a stern warning because the cause of this war isn’t tackled at all. Military strikes can be likened to temporary palliative action intended to simply condemn the perpetrators of a hostile act, but it doesn’t save the lives of people at all.
Suppose the Syrian regime continues to bomb the rebel-held-populated areas, still people would continue to suffer or die in large numbers regardless of nature of weapons used.
Independent reports that show over 400,000 people have died over the course of the seven-year conflict in Syria, the vast majority of them, civilians. Over half of the Syrian population has been displaced, with over 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Surprisingly enough, the international community stands idly by while people are dying unspeakably.
Military strikes do not provide any guarantee to save the lives of Syrians. So what have they achieved? This was not the first attack against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
In April 2017, the United States struck Syria for the same asserted reason: as a reprisal for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in violation of international law. The operation looked more like a reprisal than like what we usually mean by a humanitarian intervention.
At that time, President Trump said that it was designed “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” not to avert the many other atrocities that were being committed in Syria.
Though it as has been claimed that military action met the requirements of humanitarian intervention in the circumstances of the present case, it is fair to say that the objective of averting overwhelming humanitarian suffering is proving elusive.
While use of chemical weapons attracted international opprobrium, what happened wasn’t worse than genocide. The crime of genocide is universally recognised as the worst heinous act against humanity, but no serious measures to ensure that perpetrators never escape justice.
For instance, we have witnessed in recent years the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, but some of the key perpetrators continue to freely roam some countries, including those that struck Syria.
As a matter of moral obligation, the international community must always act to alleviate the humanitarian suffering wherever it occurs. The UN Security Council, which was created supposedly to maintain international peace and security, must take action to ensure that no breach or threat to peace and security.
In such circumstances, even if Council members threaten to veto any resolution, action can be taken through the UN Assembly. According to the UN Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility over the maintenance of international peace and security but doesn’t have exclusive responsibility.
History reveals that the UN Security Council has ever been bypassed by acting through UN General Assembly when it had been proved that the Council is utterly scuppered by its members to discharge its core mandate.
The writer is a law expert.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.