Means, motive and opportunity: justifying the use of force in Syria

I’m glad to see that the main stream media has redirected the nation’s attention from “twerking” (I can’t recall anything that makes me wish this actually existed more than learning that word) to something that actually matters: what’s going on in Syria.  The drum beat of war is starting up again and everyone seems to think its only a matter of time (and a few twisted arms at the UN) before some hardware stamped with “Made in Huntsville” will be flying over Damascus.  I have to give credit where it is due.  The media is not only focusing on the right story, they also seem to be focusing on the right issue: is the use of force by the US in Syria justified?
I’ve blogged before about the idea that there should be no difference in the standards that are applied to individuals vs. governments and this is a perfect example.  As a concealed carry holder (and now instructor) I know very well the three part test that would be applied should I ever have to use my weapon in self defense: did I reasonably believe that the person I applied deadly force to have the means, motive and opportunity to kill me or do me grave bodily injury.  What if we apply that standard to the US using deadly force against Syria?
First, does Syria have the means to cause death or bodily injury to the US?  This one is pretty simple: yes. By some accounts Syria is in possession of the the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world and there is no argument that chemical weapons can and do kill people.   So I don’t think there is much debate about means.
Next, does Syria have a motive to kill or harm the US?  This test needs a little more exploration because of course there is no one “will” for all of Syria – you have to answer this question for each of the major factions that may have a say in how the chemical weapons in Syria are used.  By all accounts the weapons are currently controlled by the Asad government.  While the US and Syrian governments haven’t been on the best of terms since the Iraq war, I can’t really find any evidence that they have motive to attack the US.  Of course, there seems to be more concern that the current government will lose control of some of their chemical weapons and that they will fall into the hands of the rebels, or more specifically the al-qaeda  elements within the rebel movement.  If the rebels gain control of some chemical weapons and if the al-qaeda element within the rebel group has the ability to decide how those weapons are deployed,  then there would clearly be both means and motive.  Notice that there are two “if’s” in a row.  Imagine if I had used deadly force on someone with a gun and I told the jury: “Joe had a gun and was standing next to Mike.  Mike had said before that he wanted to kill me…so of course I shot Joe so Mike couldn’t get Joe’s gun.”  I think some orange pajamas would be in my future.
Then there is opportunity.  Let’s assume for a minute that both of the if’s have come true before the US uses deadly force – the rebels have gained control of the weapons and we know that al-qaeda is calling the shots on where they go and how they get used.  Would the al-qaeda rebel group actually have an opportunity to use them against the US?  This test can be one of the most confusing to understand when evaluating it in the context of an individual.  The classic example given to help understand opportunity is of someone holding a baseball bat yelling they are going to kill you standing behind a chain link fence.  They have means and motive, but no opportunity.  Even though they want to, they can’t actually hit you with the bat because of the fence.
According to Wikiepdia, Syria has the ability to deliver chemical weapons via artillery, aircraft and missile – specifically the Scud and SS-21 missiles.  Last I checked there is not an artillery piece that can launch a shell that would reach the US from Syria.  There is always the possibility of a naval based artillery attack, but something tells me the US Navy would have no problem dealing with the entire Syrian navy, much less a single ship that al-qaeda would have to get control of first and then learn how to navigate and sail.  To be honest its probably something the US Coast Guard could deal with.  An aircraft based attack could be just as easily thwarted by the US Air Force and that would assume that al-qaeda could secure an aircraft, setup in route refueling and obtain pilots that were capable of trans Atlantic navigation.  The longest range Scud missile in the Syrian arsenal (the Scud C) has a range of 500-600km and the SS-21 has a range of 120km.  For those of you that never studied the metric system or geography, the US is more than 10,000 kilometers from Syria.
So it seems that there really is no opportunity for someone in control of Syria’s chemical weapons to use any of the conventional delivery methods to kill or cause grave bodily harm to the US.   What about the proverbial “suitcase” chemical attack: some one walks into a crowded city and detonates a man portable chemical weapon.  Well of course, they would still have have to get the weapon from there to here somehow.  The two most likely pathways are via commercial air or by sea.  I can’t even check into a flight with a bic lighter in my pocket, so I don’t think that a military canister of sarin gas is making into anyone’s checked baggage.  And if you can believe the DHS (that may be the biggest if in this whole post) our ports are all equipped with senors that will detect all chemical (and biological) agents, so entry by sea seems unlikely.
So let’s imagine that the US does what everyone seems to think that they are going to do and uses deadly force against Syria.  Since we’re imagining already, let’s also imagine that the US is later brought up on trial and has to justify it’s use of deadly force. How would it go? Means clearly exist.  The motive is less clear – a few things would have to happen in just the right way for a group with motive to be connected with those means, but lets give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and say that happened.  Where is the opportunity?  I don’t see it.  I wonder what size orange pajamas you order for a country?






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