Now that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, the U.N. shot at and American pundits have become outraged, it seems increasingly clear that the international community, led by the United States, is going to punitively strike Bashar Al Assad.

But is this even a good idea? Let’s take a critical look at some of the conventional wisdom pushing for an American war in Syria.

Kurdish gas victims. Wikimedia Commons

We must enforce the norm against chemical weapons use

This is one of the strongest arguments in favor of some sort of limited strike. Because Assad violated the global norm against using chemical weapons, it’s incumbent on the international community to punish him for it.

While chemical weapons have been reviled since they were first used at Verdun in World War I, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and therefore might not have felt bound by the prohibition on use. Punishing Assad for violating a convention he never signed seems like a curious way of enforcing international law.

Moreover, there are several other countries that have used chemical weapons without recourse. The most famous to Americans is Saddam Hussein’s chem attack during the genocidal Hallabja massacre in 1988, where nearly 5,000 people died in the streets.

Less famous is Gamal Abdel Nasser’s use of phosgene and mustard gas during Egypt’s intervention in the North Yemen civil war from 1963 to 1967. Another non-signatory to the CW Convention, Nasser welcomed U.N. inspectors to “prove” he hadn’t used chemical weapons, and U Thant, the U.N. General Secretary at the time, said he was “powerless” to do anything about it.

The problem with the norm against chemical weapons use is that it goes out the window when things go wrong. Dictatorial regimes who already abuse their citizens will not be above further abuse when it comes to defending themselves from an existential threat. In Assad’s mind, he is fighting, literally, for his life — so any perceived outcry over using chemical weapons is going to be outweighed by his need for survival.

From the other side, however, he also knows that one of the few things that will unify, radicalize and intensify the rebellion against him is extensive chemical weapons use, so there might be other forces at play that limit how often they’re deployed beyond international outcry.

Ušće Tower on fire, 1999 Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Wikimedia Commons

We must destroy Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons

This is a favorite cause célèbre vested in the belief of American bombs to conclusively destroy a distributed arsenal in a fairly large country. Rep. Peter King advocated this recently on CNN, saying cruise missiles should be employed against chemical weapons facilities and command and control centers for Assad’s army.

A bunch of neocon hawks write open letters pretty routinely advocating something similar. There are similar motions on the left side of the aisle, as well: basically arguing that limited strikes akin to the Kosovo air campaign are the best way of responding.

But Kosovo was a different time, place and political context. The Free Syrian Army is not the Kosovo Liberation Army, which admittedly still ethnically cleansed a hundred thousand Serbs from northern Kosovo using U.S. air cover. Kosovo’s situation within the former Yugoslavia is not similar to Syria’s civil war. And the bombing campaign there, though still outside the auspices of the U.N., nevertheless carried international legitimacy in a way intervening in Syria would not.

Moreover, Boris Yeltsin — not quite a dove but certainly no hawk — nearly began a war with the U.S. when he ordered 200 Russian troops to occupy the airport at Pristina. U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark then ordered 500 NATO troops to remove them by force, an order British pop star James Blunt, then an army officer, refused to carry out. British Gen. Mike Jackson approved his insubordination. War with Russia was that close during the supposedly easy air campaign in Kosovo.

Syria is vastly more complicated. The U.S. doesn’t just need to worry about accidentally attacking Russian troops or advisers — it needs to worry about Iranian ones, too. “Iran has a significant role in the regime’s decision-making process,” Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told me this week.

She also pointed out multiple reports that suggest Iranian troops — including the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are guarding at least some of Assad’s chemical stockpiles. Striking at those stockpiles would risk killing Iranian troops, which then would dramatically increase the chances of an accidental war with Iran. Is that really worth the risk?

Syrian civil war, as of April 28, 2013 (red is Assad). Wikimedia Commons

We should defend civilians

The Responsibility to Protect is a growing doctrine taking hold among many liberal interventionists. It argues that the international community has a duty to protect civilians when their government either cannot or will not.

But R2P, as it’s called, it not a requirement for action, nor is it a treaty obligation. What’s more, it’s unclear how any strikes at the Assad regime will actually defend civilians. They’ve already been gassed, bombed and slaughtered in appalling numbers. Can a few bombs really change that?

And will those bombs alter the growing fracture of both pro- and anti-regime militias, which will promise bloodshed no matter what regime is leftover?

There is also a steep credibility gap on the part of U.S. planners. The crackdown in Bahrain, for example, was met in the U.S. government with silence. Ongoing, horrific human rights abuses by U.S. allies in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Iraq are never met with scorn — just indifference.

Recent human rights atrocities, like the Sri Lankan mass killings of Tamil rebels in 2009, merited barely more than a shrug. And last year’s conflict-famine in Somalia, which killed a hundred thousand people in just a few months, warranted a shrug from the international community. When so many other massive tragedies go ignored, there is no easy answer for why Syria, why now.

Strategic SAM deployment in Syria. Air Power Australia

We must destroy the regime

There is no question Bashar Al Assad has committed crimes against humanity. He has mercilessly slaughtered civilians, gassed non-combattants, and turned entire cities — themselves priceless historical artifacts — to dust. Surely, if anyone has earned a regime-change, he has, right?

Well, maybe not. Assad’s regime is not some dried out husk, the way Saddam Hussein’s regime was after a decade of crippling oil sanctions. Nor is it the Taliban regime, which never had much structure to attack anyway. Nor is it the broken mishmash of Islamist groups in northern Mali, which still took some work to dislodge and are far from gone despite concerted effort.

Though not as strong as they were two years ago, Syria still has a formidable air defense system, all of it arrayed at the coast from where U.S. Navy ships would be launching cruise missiles. To defeat that system would require a massive shock-and-awe campaign, which might not even get all of the necessary facilities on the first wave — and which would increase the chances of still more chemical weapons use by a regime desperate to hold onto power.

The problem with all of these solutions is that they don’t conclusively address the complex problem that is Syria: a collapsing regime holding onto power with increasing brutality facing an opposition movement increasingly controlled by the very jihadists we went to war with once already. Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who devised a cruise missile attack plan, has come forward to say that he doesn’t think such strikes would do much.

Really, any sort of Western response to the bloodshed in Syria will be symbolic, at best. Whether that is enough to satisfy those screaming for more war is yet to be seen, but there should be no illusions: short of overwhelming force — an invasion — strikes simply will not do much to end the horror.

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