The US again repeated a vow this week to take military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad if it uses chemical weapons to crush the armed rebellion trying to overthrow it.
“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday.
“We have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account,” she added.
Starting early this week, US government officials and press reports citing claims that the Assad regime began weaponizing toxic chemicals prompted bombastic statements about what would trigger a US-led Western military action in Syria. This occurred in tandem with a NATO decision to put Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish-Syria border, a potentially dangerous provocation for an unstable region.
The Russian government on Tuesday claimed the West was knowingly overstating the threat from the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, adding tension to the geo-politics surrounding Syria’s civil war.
A case for war against Syrian regime based on its possession of chemical weapons, either their use or the potential for them to be captured by armed rebel groups, many with ties to terrorist groups that have killed civilians, has its own problems though.
“The Obama administration risks resurrecting the much-maligned Bush Doctrine of preemptive self-defense,” write three international relations scholars in Foreign Policy.
“Under international law, a state may only invoke its right of self-defense in the case of an actual or imminent attack,” they explain. “After the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda, however, the Bush administration asserted a right of preemptive self-defense against terrorist groups and states that harbor them or could supply them with weapons of mass destruction (WMD),” but this “doctrine has a weak basis in international law and its legal recognition would improperly justify the use of force by powerful states.”
The Obama administration’s other option, according to the scholars, is to justify intervention as humanitarian under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. But this also has a weak legal basis and would probably not receive UN Security Council approval.