A group of boys watch a group of activists sing and shout slogans against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
A group of boys watch a group of activists sing and shout slogans against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, April 25, 2013.
Nour Kelze / Courtesy Reuters

There are two distinct conversations going on about the legitimacy of the West’s expected military campaign against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The first has to do with whether military action is an appropriate response to the wanton violation of a near-universally held norm -- in this case, the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime allegedly violated last week. The second centers on whether military action is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities (of whatever kind) committed by their governments. These conversations, although often conflated, have very little to do with one another, since each policy goal as the goal of protecting civilians. It has more to do with protecting a set of shared international understandings about the proper conduct of warfare. If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago: bombs and guns have killed far more civilians, at least as horribly, as last week’s gas attack.

The Obama administration has already confirmed that its primary concern is with protecting the norm and punishing its violators. Given that goal, the appropriate course of action would be to, first, independently verify who violated it. The United States claims that it has “no doubt” that Syria was behind last week’s chemical attack, but that remains an open question until the UN inspectors have completed their investigation. Second, the United States would have to consider a range of policy options for affirming, condemning, and lawfully punishing the perpetrator before resorting to force, particularly unlawful force. As Article36.org, a nongovernmental organization notes, these might include condemnation, an arms embargo, sanctions, or any of the other bilateral and multilateral measures that are typically used to respond to violations of weapons norms (and which might be at least as effective as air strikes, if not more so). Third, should the United States decide on military action, with or without a UN Security Council resolution, it would need to adhere to international norms regulating the use of specific weapons in combat.

It is thus worrying that the proposed military strikes against Syria rely on Tomahawk missiles, which are capable of carrying cluster munitions and which have been decried on humanitarian grounds by numerous governments and civil society groups. Equally alarming is that the planned strikes would likely involve the use of explosives in populated areas, which is in violation of emerging international concerns about such behavior. Although there is historical precedent for the legitimacy of violating the UN Charter in order to enforce global humanitarian norms, it would be seen as hypocritical to violate those very norms in the service of their affirmation.

Such strikes should not be confused with military action to protect civilians. Indeed, even a by-the-book strike meant to punish Syria for the use of WMD, although perhaps ethically justifiable as a way to affirm and promote politically important global norms, would look very different from a robust military intervention to protect Syrian civilians. In that case, R2P doctrine should come into play. Although the doctrine does sanction the otherwise unlawful use of force in certain grave circumstances -- a threshold arguably met in Syria quite some time ago -- it also treats military force as a last resort. And it suggests that states consider both just cause in terms of civilians lost, not the type of weapon that killed them, and right authority. That means opting for multilateralism at minimum, meaning that the United Kingdom’s new statement in favor of unilateral intervention would not be consistent with R2P. Right intention also matters: the goal would have to be actually protecting civilians as far as possible within the bounds of international law, rather than maintaining credibility or protecting brute national interests.

Most importantly, R2P urges policymakers and military planners to weigh just cause against the question of whether there is a reasonable prospect of success at reducing civilian bloodshed, given the available resources and constraints, and to select the best type of intervention to meet the goals, which generally means a much longer commitment of blood and treasure than punitive air strikes. (During the intervention in Kosovo, to which the expected Syria intervention has been compared, Western powers sought not just to cripple Milosevic from the air, but also to end combat, negotiate a settlement, and insert ground troops under the mandate of a robust multi-national peacekeeping operation.) In certain scenarios, military strikes simply wouldn’t pass these various tests. In cases in which forceful action would risk more civilian lives than it could save, continued diplomacy and non-coercive measures are more consistent with R2P.

It is a matter of argument whether that is the case here. Smart people have made the case for and against military intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds. But the question of whether intervention -- at this time, in this way, for this reason -- will protect civilians in Syria is a very different question than whether punishment for violating the chemical weapons taboo is warranted. Since each policy goal suggests a different type of intervention, Western powers shouldn’t try to have it both ways.

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  • CHARLI CARPENTER is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at University of Massachusetts. She is the author of three books on the protection of civilians and teaches courses on human security and the rules of war. She blogs at Duck of Minerva.
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