Reality Check

Reality Check

Vets the truthfulness of claims and measures the efficacy of public policy

Reality Check: Defining the "Red Line" in Syria

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In this edition of Reality Check, Sam Brock looks into the president's claim that intervention in Syria is about maintaining values and rules.

    President Obama’s impassioned plea to Congress, and to the American people, to support military intervention in Syria comes after months of back-and-forth about the appropriate course of action.

    On Saturday, the president told a national audience, “Make no mistake- this [response] has implications beyond chemical warfare.”

    He continued with a series of questions.

    “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules,” Mr. Obama asked. “To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”

    The position that Syria must be held accountable for breaking international rules of war prompts heavier questions of how the U.S. government has handled similar situations in the past.

    For example, what about the 100,000 people brutally crippled, maimed and slaughtered in Syria before the administration decided it wanted to intervene?

    According to David Sloss, director of Santa Clara Law School’s Center on Global Law and Policy, there are essentially two “fundamental” rules of war that have been part of international code since the 19th century.

    “Some of the oldest principles in the law of war are, you don’t use indiscriminate weapons and you don’t attack civilians, right? And Syria did both of those,” Sloss said.

    Yet why no intervention, or calls for intervention, until now?

    “There’s a good case to be made that we should have intervened a lot earlier,” Sloss said, “but the failure to intervene earlier should not be used as an excuse to do nothing now.”

    Sloss characterized the crossing of the ‘red line,’ the use of chemical weapons, as a defining development in its own right.

    “There is something different, I think, between killing large numbers of people using ordinary weapons, and killing large numbers of people using chemical weapons,” he said.

    The Santa Clara professor did confirm, however, that the notion of a red line over chemical weapons wasn’t as firm in the 1980’s, when the U.S. not only knew about Iraq’s usage of such munitions in the Iraq-Iran War, but also *supplied Iraq with materials used to make those chemical weapons.

    “I think we did look the other way,” Sloss said. “Since the end of the Cold War, though, it's become much more uncomfortable for the U.S. to look the other way when there's a major humanitarian disaster, or widespread use of chemical weapons.”

    How then to explain the U.S. position during the ethnic genocides of Darfur and Rwanda, when we offered aid and military backbone only after much of the damage had been done?

    “If you’re looking for consistency in American foreign policy you’re going to be waiting a long time for it,” said Frank Jannuzi, the deputy executive director for Amnesty International USA.

    “I think that nations behave according to their interests, and according to their opportunities,” he added.

    At this juncture, Jannuzi says the most important thing for both the international community and the U.S. is to fashion a response to the humanitarian crisis, with more than 6 million Syrians either displaced within the country or forced into refugee status.

    Jannuzi also told NBC Bay Area he finds it difficult to compare the use of chemical weapons with other egregious actions taken by countries like Syria, who have demonstrated little regard for the lives of citizens.

    “It’s a great philosophical debate for late night on a college campus,” Jannuzi said. “But the fact of the matter is differentiating from one war crime to another on some sort of a qualitative scale, I don’t think I can solve that for you.

    “Amnesty International’s view is that ALL of those war crimes should be investigated, all of them should be punished, and that international norms against the use of chemical weapons, against targeting civilians with heavy weapons, against bombarding neighborhoods with cruise missiles, those norms need to be upheld.”

    On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a measure to support limited U.S. military action in Syria by a count of 10 to 7.

    Senate leaders will hold a brief session on Friday to put a war resolution vote on the Senate’s calendar.