Despite the fact that all the Middle East analysts I have read have concluded that a Western military intervention in Syria would be indifferent at best and disastrous at worst, France, the UK, and the US threatened swift attack on Syria in retribution for the chemical weapons attack which occurred a week ago outside Damascus. The UK and the US governments have announced that that they think they have found a legal justification for attacking Syria: the bad humanitarian situation may justify killing people to prevent a worse humanitarian situation.
It is just as true for governments as for individuals that when someone who wants to do something says “It’s legal,” that legality won’t necessarily stand up in a court of law. The only universally recognized legal justification for military action is self-defense (although the use of that justification has gotten progressive more far-fetched in certain areas). A mandate from the UN Security Council is not exactly a legal justification, but does ensure that the intervention won’t start the next world war.
And does the humanitarian justification make sense? If it could be known that fewer people would die as a result of a military attack than not, perhaps it could be justified in terms of raw numbers. But the best that can be said is that such a justification is unknowable. The worst is that Russia is sending its own navy to the Mediterranean, Iran has threatened Israel, and it sure looks like a Western military strike on Syria would not reduce the war but increase it. That fear is why, although almost all Middle Eastern countries have sided with the opposition against Bashar al-Assad (Lebanon exceptionally remaining neutral), no Middle Eastern country has gotten on board with an outside military strike on Syria. Not even Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which are supplying arms to the rebels. Indeed, the Lebanese foreign minister warned of the consequences, Egypt has declined to participate, Jordan has refused to be involved, and the Arab League, while condemning the attack and blaming it on the regime, has not advocated an outside attack. I think the humanitarian justification for attacking Syria is a flimsy pretext which will get a lot of people killed.
I agree that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished. But no single country acts as the world judge. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is charged with finding an end to this conflict, said today that a US-led military intervention without a mandate from the UN security council is illegal. Punishment for the use of chemical weapons is a matter for the international community, represented by the UN and particularly by the International Criminal Court.
It is also not as clear to me as it is to President Obama that the Syrian regime is the only combatant which might have gotten their hands on chemical weapons. In particular, if one of the various al-Qa’ida linked groups or other foreign jihadi rebels got their hands on chemical weapons, I doubt they would feel much compunction about using it. The fact that they would know that Assad would be blamed for the attack would only sweeten the temptation for them. Foreign intelligence services would not necessarily acquire reliable information that jihadis had chemical weapons until after they were used. In other words, the fact that US intelligence does not believe the opposition possesses such weapons does not in fact imply that this attack was perpetrated by the regime.
A Western attack on Syria would also be a significant escalation in the war. While plenty of other countries have been involved in the Syrian Civil War, with only two exceptions that involvement has been in the form of arms or other supplies to the Syrian government or the rebels. The two exceptions are Turkey, which on a couple occasions when Turkish citizens have been killed by spillover fire has returned random fire into Syria, and Israel, which on at least four occasions has conducted air raids on military targets while publicly refusing to comment. No other country has directly involved its military in fighting within Syria. For western countries such as England, France, or the US to attack Syria with their own military, publicly and openly (unlike Israel) and without having come under attack first (unlike Turkey) would be a significant escalation of foreign involvement in the conflict.
This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is considered legal by those attacking (Russia, Iran, and China would disagree). This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is of limited duration or with specific targets in mind (although one US policy-maker acknowledged that there will be civilian casualties). Such a significant escalation would no doubt encourage other countries to escalate their involvement. A Western attack on Syria is not a Middle Eastern policy issue; it is a world policy issue. A Western attack on Syria would not save lives.
The situation in Syria is awful, but as one commentary put it, “Outsiders have no tool to fix Syria.”