The Nonprofit Stake in the Possible U.S. Military Action against Syria

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Is the possibility of a U.S. military strike on Syria to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons on civilians an issue for the nonprofit sector? Taking into consideration these facts, what do you think?

Here are some facts:

Syrian refugees: The Zaatari refugee camp, housing 120,000 Syrian refugees, is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan, if you can call a sea of tents a city. The camp is the second-largest refugee settlement in the world, one of several in the nation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN agency that monitors refugee issues around the world, counts 1,984,199 Syrian refugees spread throughout Lebanon (716,284), Jordan (515,012), Turkey (459,207), Iraq (168,585), and Egypt (110,822). There are varying estimates of additional millions of Syrians who are considered “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), ranging from 1.5 million to more than 4.5 million.

Would a missile strike—that is, the launch of multiple missiles from U.S. Navy destroyers—increase or decrease the number and flow of refugees from the vicious conflict in the Syrian civil war? While the technology of cruise or tomahawk missiles may allow for unimagined accuracy, that doesn’t mean that civilians won’t be harmed, that there won’t be collateral damage, that Syrian authorities won’t use civilians as human shields against missile strikes (with word that they are already moving military assets into residential neighborhoods), or that the Assad regime might not strike back against opponents who it deems to be supportive of the U.S. action.

Syria’s humanitarian crisis: As of August 23rd, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that with the announcement of $195 million in additional assistance earlier in the month, the U.S. has provided $1,010,354,195 in humanitarian assistance to Syria in FY2012 and FY2013. Overall, by its own reports, the U.S. is the single largest provider of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people during the civil war. But, even as Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged, aid delivery is difficult inside Syria due to problems of access to people in need and the provision of security for aid deliverers. Moreover, in those places where the UN rather than the U.S. is providing assistance, the countries that are hosting the refugees, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are opposed to any kind of aid in the camps that would lead to a more permanent presence of the Syrian refugees. As a result, they are reluctant to make the kinds of infrastructural improvements that might make the camps marginally more livable.

The emerging dimensions of the humanitarian relief problem in the region due to the Syrian civil war amounts to the worst refugee crisis the world has faced since Rwanda, according to UN officials. As of December 2012, the UNHCR issued an analysis calling for $2,981,640,112 in aid by the end of calendar year 2013 for aid for Syrian refugees throughout the region, estimating that as of August 23rd, only 40 percent had been raised. Adding in the costs of aid to the population inside Syria, as well as the requests issued by Jordan and Lebanon, the total humanitarian aid appeal for 2013 is approximately $5 billion.

As President Obama initially concerned himself with the idea of ordering—on his own authority, without congressional authorization—military action against Syria due to its use of chemical weapons against its civilian population, the president wouldn’t have needed to confront the issue of the extent of his war powers had he decided instead to unilaterally flood Syria and the region with humanitarian aid. Perhaps Congress might have balked at that kind of massive humanitarian response, but it would have been a different discussion than the debate over war powers. While Congress has balked in the past at a rapid response to domestic disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy relief, the Syrian crisis is of Rwandan proportions: over 110,000 people have already been killed in the civil war, and undoubtedly hundreds of thousands are more likely to die due to hunger, sanitation, and disease. For the sake of comparison, a potential attack on Syria, using around 200 Tomahawk missiles launched over a few days, would cost $300 million just for the hardware—at least $1.5 million per missile—not counting any of the other costs of the U.S. Navy build-up in the Mediterranean.

Chemical warfare: The recent horrible massacre of Syrian civilians on August 21st through the use of sarin gas, as documented by the U.S. State Department, was monstrous and indefensible, though the deaths of 110,000 Syrians in order to keep Assad in power is a crime in and of itself. The report distributed by the U.S. State Department to justify President Obama’s potential punitive strike focuses on the August 21st attack and not on previous attacks. However, the president’s “red line” regarding chemical weapons had been crossed before; his administration charges that the Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill 100 to 150 people in attacks in March and April—a much smaller death total than the 1,429 on August 21st. This red line seems different by magnitude, but not by the fact of chemical weapons use per se.

The State Department report doesn’t argue that the U.S. has forensic proof that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but expresses “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st. It makes this judgment based on the Syrian government’s stockpiles, its capacity for and means of delivering the weapons, and intercepts of communications, plus Syria’s delay of UN inspectors trying to reach the area, giving the government time to purportedly tamper with or destroy evidence of the attack. The report characterizes the idea that the opposition might have unleashed the chemical weapons as “highly unlikely,” due primarily to the opposition’s limited capabilities. It doesn’t address the multiple reports of recent days that the Saudis, through intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, gave chemical weapons to some elements of the opposition, though the logic of why the opposition, even jihadists, might use sarin to kill 426 children in the Damascus suburbs is just about impossible to fathom. The UN inspectors do not comprise a forensic team; they will merely report on the evidence that chemical weapons were used, the type of chemical weapons, and so forth. That is largely why the U.S. has eschewed waiting for the UN report—because it won’t ascribe specific responsibility for the attack.

Why launch missiles against the Assad regime now, and not months ago, when the U.S. also had evidence of the use of chemical weapons? Why not punish other countries that have used chemical weapons, such as those several that have used white phosphorous? (Well, that includes the U.S., which admitted only in 2013 that it had used white phosphorous during the first battle of Fallujah, as well as Israel, which admitted to using white phosphorous in an attack on Gaza in 2012, and the Saudis, who have been accused of using the substance against Yemeni rebels.) Why punish Assad with a punitive “shot across the bow,” rather than following through on the likelihood that if chemical weapons were used by the Syrian military, Assad is by definition responsible for this crime and has to bear full and personal responsibility, be deposed, and put on trial by the International Criminal Court? Why don’t the states that have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which include the U.S., Russia, and China, demand that the states that have not signed the convention—Syria, Egypt, Angola, South Sudan, and North Korea—and those that have signed but not ratified the convention, Myanmar and Israel, immediately reveal their chemical weapons stashes and destroy them, bringing the full weight of international public opinion on the elimination of these weapons, rather than making a statement against one? Start with the purported user—Syria—and demand that Assad reveal his CW stockpiles and turn them over to the coalition of non-users. If Assad truly ordered the use of the weapons, or at least was aware of his military’s use of them before they were deployed, then he should be held personally responsible, rather than subjecting his country to a few days of missile attacks that simply deliver a punitive message.

Democratic values: President Obama was all but ready to order the launch of missiles had it not been for a groundswell of concern for his unilateral action without the consent of Congress and the dynamic of the British Parliament telling P.M. David Cameron that the U.K. would not be signing on to a U.S. attack. Some people are suggesting that the president’s decision to not take action without the assent of Congress, or the possibility that Congress might not give its assent, makes the U.S. look weak, especially to adversaries like North Korea and Iran.

On the contrary; a nation that demonstrates its respect for the law and for government that makes sure it hears the voices of the people’s representatives always earns respect. If the Obama administration possesses the inconvertible truth about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and has a coherent strategy to offer—beyond making a statement that will, in all likelihood, cause additional casualties—it is a mark of strength for President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to ask Congress for its assent.

However, what is Congress being asked to agree with? The White House has drafted, at least initially, an “authorization for the use of military force,” based on the contention that Syria’s use of chemical weapons “threatens…the national security interests of the United States,” that would authorize the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria.” (Emphasis added.) That is an open-ended kind of authorization, without geographic scope, timetable, or armament limitations. For Congress to debate the latitudes and constraints on the authority of the nation’s president is a crucial test of democratic values. In light of the death of interviewer David Frost over the weekend, this debate brings to mind the iconic sentence that Frost got former president Richard Nixon to utter, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In a high-functioning democracy, that wasn’t true for Richard Nixon, it wasn’t true for George W. Bush, and it’s not true for Barack Obama.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote last week, “We can have more influence on the rest of the world by showing the rest of the world our resolve to live by our ideals here in America, than by using brute force to prove our resolve elsewhere.” Already, U.S. military chiefs are bemoaning the impact of the sequester on the ability of the U.S. to carry out and continue missions in Syria, a theme that is being picked up in conservative congressional circles, including some who are arguing that the sequester on the military has to go before the U.S. can attack Syria.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq under President George W. Bush, some U.S. nonprofit organizations issued statements that raised questions about the legitimacy and wisdom of the war. These statements, issued not by international aid groups, but by nonprofit leadership organizations, were sometimes cautious, not wanting to appear partisan or unpatriotic, but in large measure raised questions about the justifications for military action and the costs to both the U.S. and Iraq. Based on the facts, whether or not one agrees with a missile attack on Syria, the questions raised by the action proposed by the Obama administration would seem to qualify as crucial subject matter for the U.S. nonprofit sector, writ large.

  • David Warlick

    The appropriate action should depend on the law. The article states, “The recent horrible massacre of Syrian civilians on August 21st through the use of sarin gas, as documented by the U.S. State Department, was monstrous and indefensible, though the deaths of 110,000 Syrians in order to keep Assad in power is a crime in and of itself.” This seems to imply that the gas was monstrous to our moral code but not an international crime. The deaths of 110,000 Syrians is said to be a crime. Look up the appropriate crime statute and see what action it calls for. Perhaps the citation is a U.N. statute and the required action is a U.N. intervention with blue coalition forces, including the U.S. Army (my branch for 3 years in the 1960s). Almost certainly there is no law anywhere in the world that says the appropriate action following civilian deaths is $300,000,000 of unilateral U.S. missiles. That is only about $1/person in the U.S., so the expense seems less relevant than following the U.N.’s legal procedures.