President Obama's speech this Saturday suggests that his administration wants to attack the Assad regime for two reasons: to protect national security and to deter the future use of chemical weapons, both by the Assad regime and in future conflicts. Is United States military action an effective way to achieve the second of the Obama's administration's two stated goals? No, stopping the proliferation of chemical weapons requires a focus on the arms dealers who enable their use.
To prevent the use of chemical weapons, we must know who is responsible for their use. Inspired by the Nuremberg Principles, I suggest that there are three responsible groups: the people who deployed the chemical weapons (the soldiers who pulled the trigger, so to speak); the people who ordered the use of the chemical weapons (rarely members of the first party, in the Syrian case this most likely includes Assad and/or high level members of his loyal military); and the people who manufactured the chemical weapons and/or facilitated their manufacture and deployment. Without any of these groups, the use of chemical weapons is impossible.
The debate over the next weeks will almost certainly focus on the second group, Assad and his military commanders. There will be discussion, and eventually targeting, of the third group, but only in a limited sense. And that limit is a problem. President Obama, his political allies, war hawks and United States military commanders will focus great attention on the Syrian regime's chemical weapons facilities but they will ignore the arms dealers and Syrian allies who made the construction of these facilities possible. It will only become possible to stop the use of chemical weapons when it becomes impossible for such people to do business.
If the goal is to deter the future use of chemical weapons, it is necessary to ask questions like: Where did the Assad regime get the equipment required to manufacture and deploy its chemical weapons? Who trained the technicians who manufactured the weapons? Who profited from the creation and, ultimately, use of the weapons? It is unlikely that the Syrian regime developed its chemical weapons on its own or deployed them unassisted. Russia has been a major supplier of the regime's weapons since the Cold War. During the 1980s and 1990s German companies, along with Russia, sold Syria the equipment and materials necessary to manufacture chemical weapons. Uncomfortably, after the start of the Syrian Civil War British firms sold the Assad regime the chemical components it needed to build chemical weapons.
The United States government is not in a position, by itself, to stop further arms sales. As a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine suggests, it is likely that elements of the United States government have, at times, encouraged such sales. During the Iran-Iraq War the CIA supported the Hussein regime's use of chemical weapons, which required the purchase of equipment from Italy.
A military attack by the United States is unlikely to discourage the future sales of the equipment necessary to manufacture or deploy chemical weapons. What a military attack might do is temporarily halt the Syrian regime's ability to manufacture chemical weapons or disrupt the chain of command necessary for their use. Even that is unlikely. Sarin gas is relatively easy to make and was made, and used, by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo in Japan in the 1990s.
What airstrikes will accomplish the further deaths of civilians. Airstrikes could prelude further involvement by the United States military in Syria. They will emphasize the United States government's willingness to use unilateral force in pursuit of its policy ends and, in turn, underscore the belief, held by the Assad regime and so many others, that violence is an appropriate way to solve political conflicts.
I do not, however, believe that the United States should do nothing. If President Obama is interested in preventing the future use of chemical weapons his administration, the United States Congress and/or the United Nations could create severe penalties for the companies that provide the materials to manufacture or deploy chemical weapons. Congress could pass a law making it impossible for such companies to do business in the United States. As a first step, President Obama could support the British Parliament's inquiry into the licensing of firms to sell the Assad regime. Would any of these actions prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again? Nothing, including airstrikes, can prevent that. However, such actions might make it difficult, if not impossible, for any regime, including Assad's, to manufacture chemical weapons in the future.