Evan Moore is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Last August, as the death toll in the Syrian crisis reached more than 25,000, President Obama declared that a red line for America's direct involvement would be if Washington were to see "chemical weapons moving around or being utilized" by the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Yet last week, amid intelligence reports that the Assad regime had moved stockpiles of its chemical weapons and is preparing for a possible aerial attack using the deadly nerve gas sarin, the commander-in-chief appeared to back away from his original statement and draw a revised red line: now only the "use" of chemical weapons would be "totally unacceptable" to the United States.
The problem here is that if or when the Assad regime crosses the president's red line, it will already be too late for the Syrian people. Since the uprising began in March 2011, nearly 50,000 Syrians have been killed, 700,000 civilians have fled to neighboring countries, and an additional 2 million people—one 10th of Syria's population—are now internally displaced. Apparently none of those horrific statistics constitute a red line for the Obama administration.
What's deeply worrisome is that President Obama's continuing rhetorical shift on red lines signals not only that the United States will tolerate the Syrian dictator's deadly campaign of indiscriminate violence against his own people, but also that Washington may be issuing empty threats with regard to the Assad regime's potential use of chemical weapons. This is why Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, clarified this weekend what he thinks the U.S. red line on chemical weapons should be: "We will have the moral obligation [to militarily intervene] if we can say with even a moderate degree of certainty that these weapons have been prepared and are put in an arsenal for use."
In April 2012, President Obama announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum. Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor, implicitly chastised the President's Syria policy at the event, saying, "Have we learned anything from [the Holocaust]? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? ... We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late." Weisel added: "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing." Now, as the Assad regime appears to be entering a terminal phase, the prospects of a "scorched-earth" attack looms. Yet the United States is still taking no tangible measures to prevent further escalation of this already grave humanitarian catastrophe.
The fact is there are specific actions the United States can take to protect Syrian civilians and opposition groups from the Assad regime's attacks. First, the United States itself could deploy advanced air defense batteries along the Turkish border and configure them to target the dictatorship's fixed-wing and rotary aircraft that are attacking rebels and civilians—thereby extending a de facto "safe zone" in Syria's Aleppo and Idlib provinces, where the opposition has carved out territory from regime control. In addition, the United States could take all necessary action to empower armed opposition groups, which reject extremist values, to strategically defeat the Assad regime. It could use U.S. and allied air power and naval assets to extend a safe zone over the entire country. It could work to deploy a "rapid-reaction" force to partner with like-minded and regional allies in order to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against civilians in a last-ditch effort to put the rebellion down.
However, it appears self-evident that the Obama administration does not wish, in any way, to directly intervene today in the Syrian conflict. Yet the truth is that the United States is already involved. By declaring in August 2011 that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside," President Obama encouraged the Syrian people to continue their efforts to overthrow their dictator. For 16 months afterwards, the Syrian people have stubbornly clung to the hope that the United States would lead the international community to intervene on their behalf. As the death toll mounts, that hope has turned to disappointment, bitterness, and resentment at America's continued inactivity.
Bashar al-Assad believes that he can continue his brutal campaign with impunity, and it appears the Obama administration, so far, has given him no reason to believe differently. Now is the time to do so. Just as the horrific conflicts in the Balkans were only ended by U.S. intervention, American and allied direct involvement is the only way in which the Syrian conflict will end. Stopping Assad, once and for all, accords not only with America's national interests, but also its morals and values—that's why the United States should do so now, before many tens of thousands more Syrians perish at the hands of the dictatorship's relentless aggression.