Though the facts are somewhat in dispute, most agree that the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in an attack on a suburb of Damascus on 21 August 2013. Prior to this attack, there have been a number of others, throughout the spring and summer of 2013. The Syrian military admitted last year it had been stockpiling chemical weapons, and the regime has a history of using excessive force against its population, stretching back to Hafez al-Assad's destruction of the city of Hama, made infamous in Thomas Friedman's characterization of the brutality of Assad's rule.
In response to the use of these weapons, the international community should respond with a limited, punitive military intervention. There is any number of reasons for using military force, and all of them will be complicated by a range of contingencies and unpredictable outcomes. There are also a number of moral and legal reasons by which a strike could be justified. But, a punitive military strike combines moral, legal, and even strategic logics in a way that might contribute to a resolution of the current crisis and reinforce norms concerning prohibited weapons and the protection of civilians.
Some have argued that the use of military force here can be justified by the invocation of the Responsibility to Protect, the normative structure that has arisen in the past 10 years through the work of NGOs and others. Its legal status remains contested, but it does provide a framework through which to deliberate about intervention. R2P proposes that when a state fails to protect its population, the international community needs to step in to provide aid. This "responsibility" is weaker than an international legal obligation, but it has developed a strong normative pull among actors. A version of it was affirmed by states at the 2005 world summit, and some claim it was invoked in the intervention against Libya.1
R2P establishes a very high standard for what an intervention should accomplish. To "protect" the threatened population in Syria cannot simply mean stepping in and stopping the regime from abusing its civilians; what is required to fulfil such a mission is the full scale toppling of a legal and political order and its replacement with a new one. This is partly why many are wary of intervening in Syria, as it would seem to involve the U.S. in an Iraq war all over again.
Rather than this high standard, a better one is punishment.2 When international or domestic norms are broken, a sanction is required. Punishing those who have violated the rules is what defines any functioning political order. As I have argued elsewhere, the use of force to punish can be morally justified at the global level, though to be truly just, that order needs important revisions.3 At the same time, waiting for those full scale legal and political changes in international affair to take effect can hamper the will to act.
Punishment as a justification for the use of force exists within the just war tradition, as seen in the works of Hugo Grotius and others. It has become less prominent in international affairs in recent years, though, as most international lawyers prefer other forms of enforcement.4 Yet in any legal system, punishment is required when individuals violate the law. Punishment that is both deterrent and retributive has both morality and law in support of it. Of course, such punitive actions can be abused, but in a functioning legal and political order, punishment in normal.
Moreover, it would seem that both the U.S. and UK governments see a punitive intervention as the most viable. Sources inside the U.S. administration have stated that military strikes would be undertaken from Mediterranean based naval vessels, "aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks." Such operations would not change the regime, but only punish it for using chemical weapons.
A punitive military strike also has strategic value. As argued by Thomas Schelling and others in years past, the use of force in calibrated ways can advance strategic objectives. This kind of punishment is not necessarily the same as a legal and moral one, but the deterrent logic underlying both strategies is similar. Certainly, the use of such strategies by the United States in places like Korea and Vietnam proved problematic But with improvements in precision bombing and clearer strategic objectives, punitive air strikes have more promise.
This proposal is not without problems; civilian casualties may result and the regime might use the attacks in an effort to rally its population. And, the history of U.S. efforts in the region certainly should give pause to anything that might generate further conflict. Tensions will surely emerge with Russia as a result of this action, though it is unlikely that either the U.S. or Russia would sacrifice their core national interests over this issue.5
The British government has also failed to have a supporting resolution passed in Parliament, meaning this would largely be a U.S. action if undertaken. This is unfortunate, as it was the British who were seeking to bring a resolution before the UN Security Council. They could still do so, though its ability to pass would be unlikely in the face of Russian and Chinese threats of veto. If, however, the UN inspectors clearly state in their report, due to be delivered to Ban Ki-Moon on Saturday, that chemical weapons were used by the regime, this might provide more support for such actions.
If the focus is on reinforcing the norms banning the use of chemical weapons, a punitive air strike should be seen as the lesser evil in a situation where, as in much of the world, moral clarity is difficult to find. Prudent use of military force in this context is necessary if the international community is to prevent the use of such weapons in the future. If framed in terms of punishment for a wrong committed, and if undertaken in a way that respects the rule of law at the global level, a military strike against the Assad regime makes moral, legal and even strategic sense.
1 Though others dispute this; see Aidan Hehir, "The Permanence of Inconsistency: Libya, The Security Council and the Responsibility to Protect," International Security 38, 1 (Summer 2013): 137-159
3 See Anthony F. Lang, Jr, "Crime and Punishment: Holding States Accountable" Ethics & International Affairs 21, 2 (2007): 239-257, and Anthony F. Lang, Jr. Punishment, Justice and International Relations: Ethics and Order after the Cold War (London: Routledge, 2008)
4 See Mary Ellen O'Connell, The Power and Purpose of International Law: Insights from the Theory and Practice of Enforcement (Oxford University Press, 2008)
5 For an argument objecting to the strikes partly on the basis of the impact on U.S.-Russian relations, see David Speedie, "Syria: 'To Jaw-Jaw is always better than to War-War'," Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 29 August 2013.