Scholars skeptical toward Syria strike

Panelists discuss state of Syria, arms control, credibility, deterrence

The MIT Center for International Studies hosted a panel on Wednesday to discuss the recent developments in the Syrian conflict as part of its Starr Forum series of public events. The talk was held in the Bartos Theater of the MIT Media Lab and moderated by John Tirman, executive director of the Center for International Studies. It focused mainly on the use of chemical weapons that occurred on Aug. 21 and the Obama Administration’s call for military action in the wake of the attacks.

Approximately 100 audience members filled the small theater to listen to the three panelists Augustus Richard Norton, Jeanne Guillemin, and Barry Posen give insight on their areas of specialty and shared the questions posed in the session afterwards.

Norton, professor of International Relations at Boston University and former U.S. Army Officer, began with the chaos and complexity of the Syrian conflict in relation to the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Syria has one fourth of the civilian population displaced, fragmented opposition forces composed of thousands of independent militias, and no single representative body likely to be deemed legitimate by the Syrian people, said Norton.

The situation in Syria, Norton said, is less conducive to stability than the atmosphere was in Lebanon three decades ago, where various institutions and ministries remained intact throughout the war. In respect to these factors, Norton said that he was “puzzled as to what we expect to accomplish with the use of force,” and that he “[has] not been able to answer this question for [himself] or for the many other Americans who are watching the situation so intensely.”

Following Norton at the podium was Guillemin, a senior advisor at the MIT Security Studies Program who has worked extensively on issues regarding biological and chemical weapons. Guillemin opened with a brief history of chemical weapons and the treaties meant to limit their use, touching on their inception during the First World War as methods meant to dissolve the stalemate of trench warfare. He also spoke of the Geneva Protocol that followed the armistice, through which countries became parties to the treaty that would “[prohibit the use] in war of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare.”

It would take almost half a century for the United States to ratify the treaty, due to internal movements of isolationism and World War II. But in 1975, six years after President Nixon renounced biological warfare and shut down all US facilities, President Ford finally ratified the protocol with Senate approval. In the following decades, many countries also ratified the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlawed even the production and stockpile of chemical weapons and required parties to destroy existing stockpiles. Today there exists the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which assists countries with the disposal of such materials. According to Guillemin, the problem, however, is that with disposal, “the burden of action is on the state; the state, for example, pays for the destruction of stockpiles … facilities” And with Syria, she put plainly, “We don’t have a state to put the burden on.”

Posen, who is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, was the final speaker. In a lecture that lasted for the majority of an hour, he underlined the shaky state of U.S. intelligence in Syria and the scarcity of details that we have concerning the events of August. He addressed one concerning aspect in particular, that the Assad regime had the means but little motive to use chemical weapons in a move that would surely draw an international outcry, especially as its forces had recently succeeded in pushing the opposition from various parts of the country.

The rebels on the other hand, Posen explained, had the motive to do so in order to provoke an intervention, but likely did not have the means to carry out such an attack. Although he believes that it is unlikely that the opposition was responsible for the gassing of the civilians, he warned of the existence of other explanations for what happened, namely miscommunication or insubordination within the Syrian Army.

As for the Obama Administration, Posen attributes its stance to a combination of Cold War-era “domino effect” ideology concerning U.S. credibility, a belief that the Iranians will take a lesson from a military strike on Syria, and a certain degree of uncertainty possessed by the President himself. Posen’s own stance is clear with this quote: “There is the notion that … Americans have a duty and a right to enforce [international law] – Americans have neither the duty nor the right.”

Once all three of the experts had spoken, the floor was open for any audience who wished to ask questions in the remaining time. Several concerning the views of the American public, the refugee situation, and the validity of alternative options to direct military intervention were posed.

The panel ended with hands still in the air, as the time limit prevented multiple queries from being addressed. It is without doubt that the incoming days and weeks will be filled with many more similarly unanswered questions. In the end, perhaps the situation can be best summed up by borrowing a few of Posen’s words: “It’s not easy to find anyone who you like whose values reflect our own.”