Most Americans surely prefer that the United States avoid becoming militarily involved in the Syrian civil war, but can Washington ignore reports that the Assad regime has begun using chemical weapons?
President Obama had said, albeit with obvious reluctance, that if Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, resorted to using chemical weapons to squash the rebellion then Syria will have crossed the line and justified American intervention.
Recent reports that Assad’s forces had employed chemical weapons, believed to be sarin (a deadly nerve gas developed during World War II), inspired Sen. John McCain, Obama’s rival in the 2008 presidential election, to push the president to acknowledge the line had been crossed.
However, questions have arisen over the source of the sarin samples from Syria and there appear to be inconsistencies between eyewitness accounts describing one of the attacks and textbook descriptions of the chemical’s effects. Arms control experts are so uncertain that the Assad regime has actually used chemical weapons that Obama is clearly reluctant to make good on his threat, though it does appear he will supply more arms to rebels.
Last week, the White House suggested it had evidence that Syrian troops may have used the nerve gas in two attacks while rebel spokesmen insisted there were actually four such attacks that killed 31 people. But there’s still no proof.
There is a reasonable argument that, from a global perspective, any use of chemical agents in warfare must be addressed firmly.
“One of the few positive outcomes of World War I was the Geneva Protocol of 1925, in which world leaders agreed that they would no longer use chemical or biological weapons,” Max Fisher, who writes for The Washington Post, observed the other day.
And, he added, their agreement has largely worked.
“The civil war in Syria has already killed tens of thousands of people, and the regime has already been accused of killing large numbers of civilians, including children, so why does it matter if regime forces used chemical weapons in small amounts, as U.S. intelligence believes they may have?” Fisher asked.
“It’s not absurd or inconsistent to suggest, as the Obama administration did when it declared a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons on Syria, that killing even just a few people with chemical weapons is somehow different than killing lots of people with conventional weapons,” he added.
But, he asserted, this is not just about Syria. It is also about every war that will follow — and we all know there will be more wars — and about the kind of warfare the world will accept. It’s also “about preserving the small but crucial gains we’ve made over the last century in constraining warfare in its most terrible forms,” Fisher concluded.
The president’s position is difficult. Americans want no part of another costly Middle East war. Yet at some point the president must recognize, as many on Capitol Hill now do, that any deployment of chemical weapons must be stopped.