Map of the attacks via the Washington Post.
The choice the US faces, cause it has the bombs I guess, is whether to punish Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, as he almost surely did. They’re not invading Syria like they did Iraq and they seem to have no intention of ending the years long civil war there, if they even could. The attacks don’t seem intended to depose Assad, nor are they aiming to overthrow the murderous regime. America is basically deciding whether to give the dictator a slap.
That There Was An Attack
There was undoubtedly a chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus (NYTimes has a useful summary). Eastern Ghouta had been shelled by the government of Syria over the past year, but these rockets released what may have been a cocktail of sarin and other toxic chemicals, causing convulsions, foaming at the mouth and ultimately death for over 1,400 people, including over 400 children. The hallmarks, as you can see in the visual evidence is that you get dead bodies without visible trauma on the bodies, besides the deathly pallor and foaming. It’s a terrible and indiscriminate way to go, something all nations have banned.
The main evidence that Assad’s government carried out the attack is that they are known to have chemical weapons and the ability to deliver them to multiple targets. These weren’t random terrorist attacks, they were multiple, targeted strikes. Essentially, the broadest evidence is that Assad had the chemicals and the ability to use them. Beyond that The US says they have communications intercepts and other evidence that the Syrian government planned the attack and has been using chemical weapons in the past.
Why would broadly be because they see it as another weapon in terrorizing the Syrian people back into submission, which is the basic game-plan of Bashar Al-Assad in this war and his father before him.
War Crimes And Punishment
Killing people with chemical weapons is horrific. Chemical weapons are broadly banned across the world, but it’s unclear what the penalties for using them are. In this case the US seems to be saying that the penalty for using chemical weapons is that the US will bomb you.
The UK has had a spirited debate and decided not to participate in this military adventure, but it seems clear that the US and at least France will. It also seems clear that the objectives here are not to end the war in Syria or depose Assad but mainly to punish him for using chemical weapons and ‘send a signal’ to anyone else thinking of using them.
It remains a curiosity of human nature that how you kill a person can be more important than the number of people you kill. For example, gun violence kills way more people than terrorism within the US, but they dedicate a hugely disproportionate amount of resources to the latter problem and almost actively cultivate the former. But I digress. The issue here is that killing 1,500 people via chemical weapons is a ‘red line’ beyond killing 100,000 via conventional munitions. In today’s world war itself is not yet a crime, but terrorism and chemical warfare earn you the opprobrium of the world. Which is I guess the way it is.
So, what I think happens is some attacks on Syria, which, honestly Assad deserves. It doesn’t seem just for him to gas people in their homes and get away with it. At the same time, however, whatever the US does will be an ambiguous move. It won’t step in and end the war or actually punish Assad or end the ongoing suffering of the Syrian people. Obama has said as much. At the same time, there will be costs to dropping American explosives on Syria, however targeted, whatever the reasons.
At the end of the day it amount to basically delivering a slap. Not a conclusive blow, but perhaps a satisfying one.