In an interesting bit of accidental politics, the Russians and Syrians leaped on Secretary of State John Kerry’s off the cuff remarks about what would keep the United States from attacking Syria. To be specific, Kerry called for all Syria’s chemical weapons to be turned over and destroyed. Much to his surprise, the Russians grabbed the idea and ran with it, scoring what some pundits regard as a political touchdown against the United States. In any case, this matter is rather interesting.
On the face of it, if the Russians and Syrians are able to do what has been promised, the United States would lose its stated justification for attacking Syria. After all, while we have condemned the slaughter of civilians, we did not threaten action until the “red line” of chemical weapon use was allegedly crossed by the Syrian state. If Syria hands over its chemical weapons, then there will not be any chemical weapons for it to use and also none that the United States should target. As such, attacking Syria to prevent future use of these weapons would be out.
The United States could, of course, still claim that Syria should be attacked because of the alleged previous use of chemical weapons. After all, if a person commits a mass murder and then promises to hand over some of his guns, this hardly gives him a free pass on the past murders. In this case, the justification for the attack would be to punish the regime for that specific infraction. However, such an attack would seem to involve Kerry going back on what he seems to have hastily promised and it would certainly interfere with the proposed deal.
On the one hand, this deal does seem to be a morally superior option to an attack by the United States. After all, it would achieve a key stated goal of the attack (to deter future use of chemical weapons) without anyone being killed or injured in a military operation.
On the other hand, this deal would seem to be a deal with the devil. After all, if the United States goes along with the deal, we would be making it clear that the Syrian regime is free to keep killing provided that it does not kill people with chemical weapons. Going back to the previous analogy, this would be like a mass murderer agreeing to hand over the poison he used to kill some people in return for being allowed to get back to killing, but limited to murdering with his shotgun and machete.
As a final point, it is worth noting the deal could be a morally correct option on the grounds that it would remove the chemical weapons from Syria. In the event that Syria falls into chaos or is taken over by more extreme extremists, they would at least be denied access to chemical weapons. There would, no doubt, be rather bad consequences if such weapons fell into “wronger” hands and were made available to terrorists.