By Robert Schlesinger |
President Obama has been quite clear: The use of chemical weapons by Syria's regime would be a "red line" and a "game changer" that "we will not tolerate."
But now that the White House and the Secretary of Defense have publicly concluded that chemical weapons, probably sarin, were indeed used in Syria, most likely by the Syrian government (albeit on a small scale), caution is the watchword of the day. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that more investigation was needed. His boss, the president, notes "this is not going to be something that is solved easily overnight."
"I think they're right to be … cautious on this because the intel can be wrong, as we've learned in Iraq," former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger told Politico.
Well, there's another Iraq parallel the president should keep in mind: Halabja. In 1988 Saddam Hussein unleashed a chemical attack on the Kurdish village as part of an ultimately successful campaign to stamp out a rebellion in the north. Over 5,000 died. But the international community, especially the United States, remained largely silent. Having paid no price for this atrocity, Saddam's wars of aggression and internal subjugation careened on, ultimately leading to the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Today it's "dozens" killed in these attacks. Tomorrow it might hundreds, or thousands. Bashar al-Assad's escalation curve suggests a broader use of chemical weapons would be a compelling option if threats to the regime intensify. His ballistic missile strikes against population centers indicate there are few red lines he will not cross, if he can with impunity.
One thing is clear: Failure to enforce this red line will embolden Assad while encouraging his ally Iran in its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, where similar red lines have been drawn.
There are serious military responses short of boots on the ground which would help turn the tide of this war. A no-fly zone would deprive Assad of his most valuable operational asset, the air force. Judicious supplies of weapons to vetted opposition groups would buy the U.S. credibility and influence with those fighting for Syria's future.
Over 70,000 are now dead in this conflict. It threatens to destabilize the entire region. The use of sarin suggests how much worse it can get. The U.S. must act now before larger international intervention, at a much greater cost later on, becomes a necessity, not an option.
About Charles Dunne Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at Freedom House