U.S. Focus Shifts Focus to Deterrence, As France Stands Firm on Punishing Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | September 12, 2013 | 4:17 AM EDT

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in February 2012. Moscow, a longstanding Assad ally, is promoting a proposal to avert U.S. military strikes by securing his agreement to surrender its chemical weapons stocks. (Photo: Syrian Arab News Agency)

(CNSNews.com) – As the U.N. Security Council met again late Wednesday to discuss a Russian proposal to avert military strikes against Syria, it was left to France to insist that “punishment” for the regime’s use of chemical weapons remains on the table.

For the Obama administration, the focus has shifted to deterrence, leaving open the possibility that President Bashar Assad may get away with the killing of more than 1,400 people in the deadliest attack involving the outlawed form of warfare in more than two decades.

The Russian proposal is for its Syrian ally to hand over its chemical weapons stocks, and President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that the threat of force has to be removed for it to be workable.

President Obama in his address to the nation on Tuesday night said he has ordered the military to maintain its current posture “and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” the implication being that if diplomacy does succeed in getting Assad to surrender the weapons – in itself far from a certainty, experts say – then there will be no reprisal for his use of them on August 21.

Hours before the prime time address, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reiterated that his government’s two objectives from the outset remain in place: “punishment and deterrence.”

On Wednesday, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem repeated that position, telling FRI radio that “France remains determined to punish the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad.”

Whatever the arguments for or against the wisdom of military strikes, the fact remains that the Obama administration for many days has been insisting that the Aug. 21 chemical attack cannot go unanswered – that “impunity” is not an option.

As recently as Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry was telling lawmakers, “Allowing those weapons to be used with impunity would be an enormous chink in our armor that we have built up over years against proliferation.”

A day earlier he declared in London, “If one party believes that it can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with impunity using chemicals that have been banned for nearly 100 years because of what Europe learned in World War I – if he can do that with impunity, he will never come to a negotiating table.”

And on Saturday, in Paris, Kerry said, “Today, Assad is watching to see whether his actions will be met with impunity.”

A dictionary definition of impunity is “exemption from punishment or from the injurious consequences of an action.”

As they have strived to make a case for congressional and public support for limited military action, Kerry and Obama repeatedly have warned that failure to exact consequences on Assad will send a message of weakness to others, like Iran.

“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?” Obama said on August 31, the day he first announced he would seek congressional authorization for military action.

On Tuesday night he made the point again, warning that “failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran – which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon, or to take a more peaceful path.”

“Can anyone believe that in Tehran they see the president’s contortions on Syria as a deterrent?” Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, mused after the televised address.

Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, summarized the deal as follows: “Russia promises that Syria will not use chemical weapons again. America says: OK. This one time, we’ll let you get away with it.”

Syrian anti-Assad groups voiced concern that the regime may go unpunished for the Aug. 21 atrocity.

“The violation of international law necessitates a serious and proportionate response,” the opposition Syrian National Coalition said in a statement released in Istanbul.

“It is not possible under any circumstances to allow war crimes go unpunished. Crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions, or surrendering the weapons used to commit them.”

“The fact that Assad and his troops can use chemical weapons and get away with it is against all human values,” said Isam Alyousfi, chairman of the Syrian American Alliance, a non-profit organization that says it supports democracy in Syria.

“Something must be done to ensure the safety of the Syrian people, and an action by the U.S. would be a clear indication that the civilized world is not going to look the other way when it comes to massive human rights violations.”

Back on August 21, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that the administration believes “that you cannot allow a regime to go unpunished for a gross violation here where they used chemical weapons on a massive scale against their own people.”

International justice – another route to fighting impunity

One of the elements of the draft resolution France has brought before the U.N. Security Council is a call for those responsible for the Aug. 21 attack to face trial in an international tribunal.

Russia will never accept this – or other elements of the draft that it strongly opposes, including fixing blame for the attack – but neither has the U.S. backed the idea of referral to a forum of international justice up to this point.

Philippe Bolopion, U.N. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, argued this week that the Security Council should immediately refer of the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would investigate atrocities and war crimes committed by the regime and rebels alike.

He noted that around 64 countries, including six current members of the Security Council – permanent members Britain and France, and rotating members Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, and South Korea – have publicly supported the involvement of the ICC.

“It’s high time that China, Russia and the US follow their lead.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s human rights panel, also favors international justice, calling it “a non-lethal way to help ensure that Bashar al-Assad and other perpetrators of atrocities in Syria are held to account not someday far in the future but beginning now.”

Rather than the ICC, however, Smith introduced a resolution on Monday calling for the establishment of an ad-hoc Syria war crimes tribunal that would cover actions committed by both sides in the civil war, including the use of chemical weapons.

He said that previous ad-hoc courts of this nature, such as those in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, had a much better record of convicting perpetrators than the ICC.

“There is a compelling, moral imperative to immediately establish a comprehensive way to hold accountable all those on either side, including Assad, who have slaughtered and raped in Syria,” Smith said.

“Unlike air strikes, a war crime tribunal neither indirectly assists jihadist forces in Syria, nor does it foster anger against Christian and other communities in Syria,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow