Would Failure To Strike Syria Invite More Chemical Weapons Use?

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Ivo Daalder, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the 2011 military intervention in Libya, says the United States should conduct military strikes against Syria, even if it can't get the backing of the United Nations. He argues that Syrian President Bashar Assad would interpret inaction as an invitation to use chemical weapons in the future. He also says that despite asking for congressional approval for military action, this is ultimately President Obama's call. "This is a lonely place for presidents to be. It will be up to him to make that decision."


One of the particular horrors of chemical weapons use comes, of course, from the memory of what happened in Iraq, Syria's neighbor. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds, his own people. Tens of thousands were killed or displaced. Citing this in his support of the president's position on Syria is former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, now with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

IVO DAALDER: We haven't seen the use of chemical weapons, certainly not on this scale in a long time. The last time was in the late 1980s in the Iran-Iraq War and then by Saddam Hussein against the Kurd civilians. That led to an international outcry that ultimately led to a successful negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that banned the use as well as the production and possession of chemical weapons.

LYDEN: The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention was ratified by 189 countries. Syria, Egypt and Israel stand as notable exceptions. And Ambassador Daalder believes that presents the U.S. with the right and responsibility to act.

DAALDER: As the international community spoke out back in the 1990s to say these weapons need to be banned from the face of the earth, when a country uses them, then at that point, the international community stands up. The U.S. has the military capacity to launch the punitive strikes, and I think that is the right response at this time.

LYDEN: Are you saying that the United States with some consortium of foreign backers without a U.N. Security Council vote, should it strike Syria, would be enacting a legal military action?

DAALDER: I think that customary international law has evolved to say that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Syria is a signature to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which bans the use of chemical warfare. Syria has violated that international norm. For the United States to act in response is the right thing to do, is a legitimate thing to do and is necessary in order to uphold this very important international standard.

LYDEN: If a strike is carried out, what is the goal here? Will it stop the use of chemical weapons?

DAALDER: Well, nothing is certain in international politics. But if we don't do anything, then clearly the message to Assad is not only did he get away with it, but he can get away with it by doing it again. So the purpose is to send a clear message that says you can't do this and don't do it again.

LYDEN: I'm looking here at a Pew poll that shows that only 29 percent of U.S. respondents are in favor of this while 48 percent opposed. That's a pretty stiff opposition.

DAALDER: In the end, presidents will have to make decisions. They can't be governed by polls. They have to be informed by polls, which is why I think he decided to go to Capitol Hill to get the support that he thinks is important to get. This is a lonely place for presidents to be. It will be up to him to make that decision. Clearly, war weariness is something that will weigh on his mind, but so is the importance of the United States demonstrating that when the international community says no to chemical weapons use, someone pays the price when they do.


LYDEN: On Tuesday, President Obama will address the American people. He'll try to make his case for action in Syria to a public weary of war. The Senate is expected to vote on the authorization of force in Syria on Wednesday. In the end, the president has said he reserves the right to act no matter what.

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