The United States has no good options in Syria. But perhaps the least bad option, in the wake of the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrian people, would be a surgical bombing strike on weapons storage facilities or other military sites.
President Barack Obama understandably has been reluctant to have the U.S. drawn into the civil war in Syria. Neither the rebels nor the regime of Bashar al-Assad is friendly to the West.
The dominant rebel factions have direct links to al Qaeda. If victorious, they could be expected to install a radical Islamist government similar to the Taliban.
Assad has long been antagonistic toward the United States. While tentative steps were taken to open channels between the U.S. and Syria when Assad assumed office on the death of his father, the effort proved fruitless.
Assuming that Assad played a central role in ordering the use of poison gas to kill his own people, how could he possibly think he could remain as the legitimate leader of the country? And if Assad issued those orders, Western forces would be justified in launching a punitive attack against him.
At this point, U.S. officials are virtually certain that either the Syrian government or military officers acting on their own ordered the massacre, which included hundreds of women and children. U.S. intelligence services overheard a phone discussion about the attack between an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense and the leader of a chemical weapons unit, so there is no chance that rebels were responsible for the attack.
What remains unclear is whether Assad, himself, gave the order, whether there is a standing order to use weapons of mass destruction or whether a high-ranking military officer authorized the attack. Nor can U.S. intelligence ascertain what, exactly, the rationale for the attack was other than perhaps to terrorize the populace.
These questions could play a role in determining whether Obama decides to launch a strike against the regime immediately or whether he will allow United Nations inspectors to complete efforts to collect proof of the use of sarin nerve gas before attacking.
England presented a draft resolution Wednesday to the UN Security Council “authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians” in Syria, including the use of force. While the UN is unlikely to approve an attack on Syria (both Russia and China could be expected to veto such a resolution), Western forces are right to at least go through the motions.
But, as Secretary of State John Kerry noted earlier this week, “there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” In short, Syria should pay a price for ignoring sanctions that have been in place since the end of World War I.
The ban on chemical weapons was observed until Saddam Hussein used poison gas to kill nearly 5,000 Kurdsh people in northern Iraq and injure thousands more in 1988. Now it appears certain that Syria also has used chemical weapons on its own people.
Obama stated at the outset of the Syrian civil war that the use of chemical weapons would constitute the crossing of a “red line” that would bring serious consequences against the perpetrator. Yet despite earlier evidence that gas was used on a smaller scale, Obama was hesitant to act.
Now that the scale of the carnage has increased dramatically, the president is compelled to do something.
Some have urged direct aid to the rebels and perhaps even the involvement of U.S. troops in the fighting. That, we think, would be a grievous mistake.
The United States has only recently extracted itself from Iraq and is quickly winding down the war in Afghanistan, which now ranks as the nation’s longest war. Polls clearly show that there would be little public support for another military foray into a Middle Eastern country.
Nor could Obama and his military planners justify direct U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war in terms of U.S. strategic intereests. With both sides hostile to the U.S., the best approach appears to be a protracted stalemate that eventually leads to a negotiated ceasefire.
But a strike against the Assad regime would help restore U.S. credibility that its threats have teeth. And, at the same time, it would serve as punishment for the use of chemical weapons.
Such a strike might not serve a short-term strategic purpose. But it would serve notice that the world will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, whether they are chemical, biological or nuclear.
Maintaining that standard is in the best long-term interests not only of the United States but also the entire world.