In a statement on August 26, US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered two important messages.
First, he claimed, it may be unavoidable for the US to attack Syria. Kerry claimed that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is “unbearable” and “undeniable.” US President Barack Obama had already warned against any attempt by the Syrian government to move or use chemical weapons, a red line that once crossed would result in military intervention by the US. Before Kerry’s statement, President Obama openly urged caution and then his position toughened after meeting with the national security team. Now the Kerry statement gave a clear signal for the use of force.
Second, Kerry said the Syrian government must be punished so as to prevent future chemical attacks. He strongly hinted that possible military strikes would be limited in scope. Since then, preparations for the attack have been made: consultations with Congress so as to obtain agreement at the least of Congressional leaders; coordination with allies such as UK and France so that some allies may join the action and efforts to collect and make public evidence of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government so as to justify military strikes. The preparations have not gone quite so smoothly. Many senior Congressmen have questioned the Administration’s grounds for military attack and many have urged the President to seek prior Congressional approval. On August 29, the British Parliament voted against Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for military actions. Nonetheless, it seems that the US Administration’s determination has not wavered.
In another statement on August 30, besides showing US evidence about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons , Kerry once again strongly hinted about punishing the Bashar government with limited military action. According to Kerry, as the US already vowed to hold Syria accountable should the red line be crossed, the world is “watching” how the US will act and it bears on US leadership and credibility in the world. Kerry also said that “whatever decision [the US President] makes in Syria, it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground.” Though President Obama said that he had not made a final decision yet, he confirmed that “a limited and narrow action” was being contemplated. Until now, all senior American officials seem to suggest an imperative limited military strike against Syria.
In the face of the increasing tension, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi twice stated the Chinese position: it supports the UN Investigation Mission to conduct an independent, objective, fair and professional investigation; there should be no interference in the investigation, and no pre-judgment for the investigation results; and finding out the truth will be the basis and precondition for any next-step actions. Minister Wang also expressed his appreciation for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call to give peace and diplomacy a chance. According to Wang, the Syrian question cannot be resolved by military means; external military intervention contravenes the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and basic norms of international relations and will only add to civilian casualties and turmoil in the Middle East. Political settlement remains the only practical way to a solution.
Until now, evidence published by the US about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has stopped short of being definitive but rather has relied much on logical reasoning. According to Secretary Kerry, Syria has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East; the US has confirmed the existence of many videos about civilians harmed by chemical weapons; three days before the attack the Syrian regime elements was told to prepare for an attack by putting on gas masks; the US knows the time and location of rockets launch and landing; the rockets came from regime-controlled areas and went to opposition-controlled areas; intercepted senior Syrian official’s phone conversation revealed worries about being found out by UN Investigation Mission. An American Congressman commented after being briefed that the Administration was using the content of phone conversations as evidence. Chairman McKeon of the House Armed Services Committee believed that Obama would need stronger reasons to persuade Congress and a nation tired of war.
Many European and American scholars are questioning, what is the purpose of the US intervening? More than 99% of the civilians that have died in the Syrian civil war in the past two years were not killed by chemical weapons. What is imperative now is to mitigate and stop the civil war in Syria. Now the American Administration seems to be waging a war for what Kerry describes as America’s global leadership and credibility. The purpose of external intervention should be to prevent a deepening of civil war in Syria and to fundamentally resolve the crisis. As a matter of fact, Kerry said it clearly that “there is no ultimate military solution. It has to be political. It has to happen at the negotiating table”. Obviously the planned military strike runs counter to this.
Two years ago when the Syrian crisis broke out, it was China that insisted on resolution through negotiations and a domestic reconciliation process. And it was because many external forces regarded overthrowing the Bashar government as a precondition and fostered the Syrian opposition that the situation has slipped to the abyss of civil war. The upcoming military action by the US not only seems impulsive but also may bring about huge risks. For example, many Syrian civilians may be harmed in a military attack; the US can not fully control the consequences of a military strike, which may spill over to Syria’s neighbors such as Israel, Jordan or Turkey; and once there is military intervention the hope for reconciliation will become slimmer.
The US Administration indeed needs to think twice.
Li Shaoxian is the Vice President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.