The decision by President Obama to supply arms to the Syrian rebels marks a shift in US policy on Syria. Obama has ostensibly done this in reaction against confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against the rebels, but it is interesting that the decision has followed on the heels of recent military setbacks by the rebels that have marked a profound shift in favour of the government forces retaking control over the situation.

If one recalls the intervention by the Coalition in Libya in 2011, that too followed a major offensive by the Libyan government that threatened to bury the uprising. It is possible – actually quite likely – that the US government has not received any new evidence of late about the use of chemical weapons (no more than it already possessed), and has simply decided now to intervene on the basis of its assessment that the rebels are losing.

Politicians play such charades all the time. Rather than deceit, it is viewed as a form of political strategy. The intervention in Iraq was the ultimate form of game play, with the suspicion (now proved false) that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein was hiding chemical weapons being used as a justification for the Coalition invasion.

I do not want to get into the possible reasons why the US government feels the need to intervene in Middle Eastern countries (while turning a blind eye to more brutal dictatorships in Africa). Oil and Israeli security feature highly. My personal view is that dictatorships sometimes need to be forcefully dislodged, so I do not oppose intervention per se. What I do have a problem with, however, is the invasion of forces that result in large scale death of enemy soldiers and civilians, and result in widespread damage to infrastructure and the environment.

The Conflict in Iraq after the Coalition invasion in 2003 has resulted in somewhere between 100,000 to one million deaths (depending on which estimates you believe). Most of these deaths have been civilians. A 2004 study published in Lancet estimates that approximately 46,000 children died during the second Iraq War as a result of the conflict. Between 800,000 and 1 million Iraqi children lost one or more parents during the war (UNCF, 2011).

So what is the alternative? The answer is very simple – target the dictators themselves rather than the rank-and-file soldiers who, more often than not, are conscripted into fighting. This is not only the most ethical way to proceed, it is often also the most effective. As they say, the best way to kill a snake is to cut off its head.

There is no doubt that the US does endeavour in conflicts to target the dictators themselves. In the Libyan conflict, the Coalition targeted Colonel Gaddafi on the pretext that he was a legitimate command and control target. As that case proved, ‘tracking and whacking’ the enemy leader is no easy feat, and until the Libyan rebels came across Gaddafi hiding in a drain pipe, no one except Gaddafi’s inner circle had any idea of where he was.

That says to me, however, that the US needs to do a better job of keeping tabs on the movements of the enemy leaders. If they can do that, there should be no need to engage in widespread warfare and cause mass casualties.

One objection to this might be that targeting enemy leaders is a form of assassination, as if that is somehow ethically wrong (and targeting rank-and-file soldiers is not). What is required is a rethink about such attitudes. To put it simply, it is the enemy leaders who are responsible for any perceived wrongdoings of their country, so why should anyone other than those leaders be punished? John Filiss (“War by Assassination“, 2011) refers to this as the “king’s agreement” of mutual protection, which is founded on the principle that it is not in the best interests of a head of state declaring war to target the enemy leader, as they might be targeted themselves. We can see that such an implicit agreement is dispensed with when there is perceived to be little risk to the life of the leader of the invading country (as in the case of Iraq and Libya). Even so, the US came under pressure from certain nations during the Libyan conflict (particularly Russia) not to target Colonel Gaddafi, as regime change was not part of the United Nation’s mandate (Watson, “UN Powers Violate Their Own Resolution By Targeting Gaddafi“, 2011). Denying that they intended to target Gaddafi, the Coalition did so nevertheless, levelling his compound with bunker-busting bombs.

As we look now to Syria, one wonders if this might be the time to bring out those bunker-busters and directly target Bashar al-Assad, rather than see the countless deaths of soldiers and civilians through the influx of US weapons into the hands of rebel soldiers, some of whom ironically would consider themselves to be enemies of the West. If one believes that the new world order should be built on the principles of justice rather than power, as I believe it should, then we need to move beyond the paradigm of warfare to that of individual punishment. Speaking of which, what punishment might be fitting for a US President who knowingly sells arms to a country that will result in countless deaths of men, women and children?