Responding To Chemical Weapons In Syria


“How many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a publicly declared red line against the use of chemical weapons?” That is the angry question being asked by many since the U.S. concluded last week, “with varying degrees of confidence,” that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own citizens — thereby crossing the red line set by President Barack Obama. Notwithstanding that red-line violation, the U.S. has, thus far, failed to react.

But what is the proper response? Proponents of intervention say if America doesn’t act now it will be like a parent promising a child stern “consequences” for bad behavior, but not delivering on the threat. They say that continuing to sit out the Syrian civil war will damage American credibility and weaken its deterrence — encouraging Iran’s nuclear ambitions, among other things.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, a proponent of intervention, wrote that it is “a strong U.S. national security imperative to at least contain the conflict in Syria, ensure that the regime’s chemical weapons do not fall into al-Qaida’s hands and prevent the neighborhood from being destabilized.” Ross and others argue that the longer the Syrian civil war continues, the deeper sectarian tensions become and the stronger the extremists will get.

Others look at the spreading chaos and humanitarian disaster — 70,000 dead and perhaps three million refugees in a brutal 2-year-old civil war — and worry about the consequences of an Iraq-like intervention. They respond to calls for a no-fly zone by pointing out that Syria’s air defenses are formidable and would be more than just a nuisance to Western air forces. And they assert that arming opposition forces presents a danger of the arms falling into the hands of extremists.

There is merit to both sides of the intervention argument.As for diplomacy, despite U.S. efforts to reach a unified position on the U.N. Security Council, that result is not likely to be achieved. As Susan Glasser writes in the current edition of Foreign Policy, Russia is not giving up on Syria: “The tyrannical Assad regime [is] a major Russian-arms customer representing the last vestige of Soviet power in the Middle East.”

Lawmakers are now pressing Obama to “do something.” And he clearly should. The questions are: what and when? Fortunately, there appears to be broad agreement that intervention should not include “boots on the ground.” We also don’t think that the administration needs to announce what it is going to do in advance, nor does it need to respond today. Rather, we support the president’s effort to get it right rather than simply get it done.

While the president’s call for more investigation to confirm Assad’s use of chemical weapons may be an attempt to buy some time, that, too, is OK. The deteriorating situation in Syria requires a well-calibrated
and meaningful response. We believe that our country’s military and this administration know how to get that done. We trust that they will.

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