So, we now have three trusted intelligence agencies—Israel’s, Britain’s and France’s—declaring that a number of chemical agents have been deployed in the Syrian civil war. Arriving late—too late—at the same obvious conclusion, the United States has finally agreed with its allies.
The Brits and French base their assessment on soil samples and interviews, and report that chemical weapons have been used in Aleppo, Homs and perhaps Damascus. U.S. and British intelligence agencies conclude that sarin was used. Both Britain and France doubt that rebel forces have access to chemical weaponry. An Israeli general reports that “the regime used chemical weapons against fighters in a series of incidents in recent months…apparently sarin.” A chlorine-type gas known as “CL 17” may also have been used. ABC News reports, “hyper-salivation…eye pain…seizures…loss of consciousness” among victims in Aleppo. In nearby Aftrin, survivors report “a sharp, bitter odor that stung their eyes,” according to ABC. Doctors in Aleppo administered as much atropine as they had on hand—too bad that wasn’t included in Secretary of State John Kerry’s “nonlethal” aid package—and sure enough, it helped victims survive. Importantly, atropine is used as an antidote to nerve agent.
What’s happening in Syria and what’s not happening in Washington is important—and not just for strategic reasons (the ouster of Bashar Assad would strike a blow against Iran and limit Iran’s reach) or humanitarian reasons (some 70,000 people have died in a war that, like Libya in 2011 and Bosnia in the 1990s, could be ended by the application of U.S. power). The unanswered, unpunished use of chemical weapons in Syria is important because of what President Barack Obama said last year.
Last August, in full-fledged campaign dudgeon, the president warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” for his administration. “A whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said, with his stentorian self-assurance, “would change my calculus.” Chemical weapons, he warned, would be “a game-changer.”
Not exactly. Chemical weapons are being used, and nothing is changing in the Oval Office. It pays to recall that this under-the-radar chemical war is anything but unexpected. We always knew that Assad possessed one of the largest chemical-weapons programs on earth, including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent. We always knew Syria had mated these weapons with artillery shells and missilery. We always knew that Syria had five major chemical-manufacturing facilities and some 45 chemical-weapons storage facilities. We have always worried—at least since 9/11—about jihadist groups gaining access to someone’s unguarded WMDs. And we know from history—Saddam Hussein in Iraqi Kurdistan, Assad’s father in Hama—that dictators pushed into a corner will do about anything to survive.
Moreover, outside observers warned and worried about loose chemical weapons during Libya’s civil war in 2011. And the warnings continued to sound as the anti-autocracy rebellion swept into Syria. In fact, in this space last July, I concluded that “the notion that Barack Obama—the anti-Bush—would launch attacks against Syria in order to preempt the use or transfer of WMDs is as unthinkable as, well, what might happen with those WMDs.”
And here we are.
This sort of inaction is easy to criticize. But Obama’s inaction in the face of Assad’s crimes is especially glaring in light of Obama’s intervention in Libya. Recall that in announcing his decision to attack Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, Obama declared , “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy…where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.”
If that sounds like today’s Syria—and it does—Obama’s inaction looks like yesterday’s response to the mangling of Bosnia. Now, as in Bosnia circa 1993, a well-armed regime is warring against an under-equipped and sometimes-unsavory rebel force. Now, as then, a dictator is winning by default, because Washington is unwilling to answer the call for help. Now, as then, the United States refuses to act, and the world follows suit.
Yet the president’s greatest failure in Syria is not in refusing to intervene—indeed, a case can be made on cold, calculating, Kissingerian grounds that America should stay the hell out of Assad’s sandbox—but rather in threatening to intervene in the event of a chemical-weapons attack and then failing to follow through.
Whether democracy in Damascus is worth risking American blood is open to debate—whether democracy will even take root in Damascus is open to debate—but the importance of American credibility is not. Maintaining the global taboo against using these weapons is not. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel observes, “it violates every convention of warfare.” The president fails to grasp these truths. And placing far too much trust in the power of his own words, he fails to understand that actions always speak louder than words. By averting his gaze from Syria’s chemical-laced civil war, he has sent a message around the world that can be understood in every language: Push the envelope as far as you want. Commit any outrage you want. Use any weapon at your disposal. Washington’s words are empty.
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