The Republican Jewish Coalition has thrown its weight behind efforts to pass congressional authorization for President Barack Obama’s plans for a military strike against Syria over its use of chemical weapons. The RJC believes in good faith that a U.S. attack would create a deterrent against Iran’s nuclear program, but there is no sign that Obama is willing to do what is needed to deter Iran. (Indeed, a former Israeli security chief suggests that Obama denied Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to attack Iran.)
In addition, there is an important principle of international law at stake that affects the U.S. and Israel’s security directly: namely, that states cannot be punished for violating treaties to which they did not agree. Syria is one of the few states that is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. That does not mean it is entitled to use them at will–doing so would still be a violation of customary international law–but it does limit the degree to which Syria can be held accountable to that treaty’s provisions. (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in contrast, had violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it had signed.)
If the U.S. adopts the position that treaties can be enforced through military means regardless of whether countries have signed them, then both the U.S. and Israel could face “legitimate” threats from illegitimate regimes like Iran for violations of faulty treaties. One such is the first Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention (Protocol I), to which the U.S., Israel, and several other nations have not agreed in full, largely because of the benefits they provide to informal armies or guerilla forces, such as prisoner-of-war status.
If Syria’s use of chemical weapons alone justifies military intervention because of the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention–cited by Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–even though Syria did not agree to that treaty, then there is a real danger that enemies of the U.S. and Israel could apply similar logic, using treaties such as the Protocol Additional to legitimize punitive military, economic or diplomatic actions (especially towards weaker Israel).
There are real and legitimate reasons to go to war in Syria–and they would also justify, and almost certainly require, war against the Iranian forces backing up the Assad regime. Secretary Kerry has likened Assad to Hitler. But declaring war on Assad because of his human rights violations is like declaring war on Vichy France and leaving Nazi Germany alone. President Obama shows no will to take up the Iranian challenge. A strike that leaves Assad in power would likely embolden Iran even further in its geopolitical ambitions.
There is one more argument against the RJC’s backing of a limited Syrian strike. The so-called “realists” behind “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories argued, falsely, that pro-Israel groups had pushed the U.S. into war against Iraq. In this case the RJC is, in fact, actively pushing for war against Syria (and that is what it is, despite Kerry’s evasions). It is a war without a strategic objective, and therefore as likely as not to go badly.
If the merit of Obama’s plans were clear, and if the anti-Assad coalition were not dominated by Islamists hostile to both the U.S. and Israel, the RJC’s campaign might be worth the risk of unfair prejudice. But Obama has already fumbled away the U.S. deterrent (this is not the first time Syria has crossed his “red line”). It will take a far larger effort to restore that deterrent. It is therefore worth asking whether a strong U.S.-Israel alliance is well-served by having a pro-Israel group stamp its approval on a weak policy likely to fail.
Full disclosure: the author is a member of RJC Leadership.