Syrian opposition groups report that the Bashar Assad regime's chemical attacks have killed as many as 1,300 people in the suburbs of Damascus. If confirmed, these alleged chemical attacks – which would be the worst use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja, Iraq, in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people – would mark yet another violation of President Obama's August 2012 declaration that the Assad regime's movement or use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for the United States.
In truth, yesterday's horrific incident is only the latest example of how the Obama administration's Syria policy has failed. Indeed, two-and-a-half years of American inaction in Syria have produced a regional cataclysm. Since March 2011, more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and 6.25 million more have been forced from their homes – 2 million are refugees in neighboring nations, while 4.25 million are internally-displaced.
Turkey and Israel have suffered spillover violence from the conflict, and sectarian strife in Iraq and Lebanon has been reignited, undermining their struggling democratization efforts. With an estimated 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan – nearly 10 percent of its population – the Hashemite Kingdom is now under severe economic strain to provide aid.
Most importantly, the conflict has become, in the words of former Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell, the top threat to American security. Al-Qaida-linked extremist groups have carved-out territory that can be used as a safe haven, while western governments are increasingly concerned that foreign fighters who have flooded into the country to take on the Assad regime will return to their home states having been inculcated in extremist ideology and trained in terror tactics. With Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles dispersed throughout the country, the risk of these weapons falling into extremist hands is growing day by day.
In other words, America is now facing in Syria what it has spent decades trying to avoid in the Middle East: the use of weapons of mass destruction by a rogue regime, the emergence of safe havens for terrorists in failed states and the potential acquisition of WMD by terrorists.
As Joseph Holliday from the Institute for the Study of War observed in April 2013, the Assad regime has pursued a deliberate strategy of slowly escalating the conflict to tip-toe past red-lines that could be used to justify intervention, initially using tanks and artillery to indiscriminately target rebels and civilians, then aerial bombardment and missile strikes, and now chemical weapons. By setting his red line for intervention at the movement or use of chemical weapons, Obama implicitly gave Assad a green light to kill Syrian people by conventional means. But by now failing to enforce the Assad regime's repeated violation of America's red line, Obama has again signaled that the Syrian dictator can continue with his relentless slaughter – now with larger-scale uses of chemical weapons.
So far, the Obama administration's response has yielded more bark than bite. Yesterday, in an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Britain and France failed to get out anything more than a watered-down statement about the situation in Syria, thanks to Russia and China's vehement obstructionism. The White House also called for the Assad regime to allow United Nations inspectors full access to the attack site. These inspectors were only recently allowed to enter the country on Sunday, after months of delay and negotiation, but it is highly unlikely that they will be allowed to make any sort of definitive conclusion.
Diplomacy, by itself, will not enable the United States to achieve its objectives of stopping the Syrian dictatorship's indiscriminate violence, let alone hastening the emergence of a post-Assad Syria. Instead, the United States should not only provide the military assistance that it has promised to the moderate elements of Syria's armed opposition, but also give the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry that the mainstream Free Syrian Army's leadership has pleaded for and needs to defend itself against Assad and extremist forces. It should also begin preparations for an air-sea campaign to degrade Assad's forces and defenses, create a humanitarian safe-zone along the Turkish or Jordanian borders for refugees to flee to and allow moderate members of the armed opposition to organize and train.
If the United States fails to enforce the red line it set for the Assad regime, then the consequences will not just be limited to Syria. The Iranian regime – which, along with Hezbollah fighters, has militarily backed Assad – may come to believe that it can ignore America's repeated warnings that building nuclear weapons would be unacceptable. It's high time for President Obama to act decisively, and stop Assad once and for all.
Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
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