Only a ‘Painful’ Strike Will Stop Syria from Using Chemical Weapons Again

Gareth Evans speaking at Chatham house on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in Libya

Chatham House

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Gareth Evans speaking at Chatham house on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in Libya

The father of the U.N.-backed Responsibility to Protect doctrine says military action against Syria is justified under the principles it lays out. By Kedar Pavgi

One of the founding fathers of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by the United Nations, says any military action against Syria is justified, but it has to be “painful” enough to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again.

“What you’re doing is not trying to solve the whole Syrian conflict or anything else,” former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, who developed the basis for R2P, told Defense One. “The only justification that’s in play here is to make a proportional response to the chemical weapons use.”

Evans said any operation should not be aimed at regime change or any broader military involvement, and any military action needs to be aimed at sending a strong message to Assad and his army.

“If there is a very painful, albeit limited in scope response, if significant military installations are knocked out, if significant military casualties are involved, hopefully civilian ones can be avoided,” Evans said. “In that context, of a specific pain-causing strike, directly labeled ‘This is what you get when you use chemical weapons,’ I think there’s a pretty good argument that that would be a very strong deterrent from any future use of chemical weapons. Whether it will deter further conduct of a horrible civil war, that’s another question, but that’s what we’re talking about, it really is in this narrow context.”

Evans was co-chairman of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which developed the tenets of the R2P doctrine later adopted by the United Nations.

I think the kind of thing of that’s being contemplated here — relatively short duration strikes targeted at military installations, targeted at degrading CW capabilities, causing enough pain to make it clear that these things are not cost-free — would fulfill the criterion of proportionality,” he said.

Evans said the recent chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus meets the five thresholds necessary for an intervention under R2P norms, though at differing levels:

  • Just cause, which asks whether serious and irreparable harm is being done.
  • Right intent, which is aimed at making sure that the intention of military force is to prevent further suffering.
  • Final resort, which sees if all possible policy options have been attempted ahead of a military intervention.
  • Proportional means, which weighs the attempted military response against the original action.
  • Reasonable prospect, which asks if a military response has an adequate chance of protecting life.

“When you put all of the things together, I think provided the evidentiary foundation is sound and out there on the public record, I think you could satisfy those sort of criteria,” Evans said. “My instinct is that unlike Iraq in 2003, the U.S. and those who sail with it would be in reasonable shape to argue the legitimacy case in the international community.”

Evans said the intelligence community must put out clear-cut evidence about the nature of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.

“You’ve got to have something that says it’s coming out of the regime,” Evans said. “Maybe it’s his brother, maybe it’s someone down the line, maybe it’s some rogue commander who went off his head, but you have to have something that says it came from the government’s side. It doesn’t have to go all the way up to Assad himself, but it has to come from the government side.”

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry presented an intelligence community assessment pointing to a direct link between Assad’s regime and the Aug. 21 attack, saying it killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

U.S. intelligence agencies detected activity by the Syrian authorities “associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack” three days before the attack, including the use of gas masks, according to the unclassified intelligence assessment released by the White House on Friday. It also said spy satellites detected rocket launches from government-controlled territory before the attack and intelligence officials intercepted communications of a senior Syrian official who “confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime.”

Evans warned that in the face of such strong evidence, doing nothing would send a strong message, too.

“If there’s no action taken in specific response to the red line that’s out there as a matter of international law, the red line that’s out there as a matter of U.S. pronouncements — if nothing happens that is seriously pain-causing, specifically associated to that breach by Assad, you can forget about any restraint in the future,” Evans said. “These guys will go at it again and use whatever they’ve got, and they obviously don’t feel any moral restraint.”

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