With much of the world's attention fixed on the drama playing out in the streets of Egypt, the civil war in Syria that has claimed as many as 100,000 lives grinds on in the shadows. But new allegations of massive use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad have once more brought Syria into focus and raised anew the question of what more, if anything, should be done to stop what is going on there.
The US, France and the UK have called upon the UN Security Council to undertake an urgent investigation of this latest evidence of the possible use of chemical weapons that may have caused the deaths of hundreds. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's administration is in a grave predicament, much of its own making. The US president has, on several occasions, declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line", constituting a "game changer" that would alter his calculus of what his country was prepared to do.
What makes all this awkward and more is that the US essentially opted not to do anything when it became clear that the Syrian regime did use chemical weapons against its own citizens several months ago. To be precise, it chose not to respond with military force, but instead to open the possibility that it would supply less radical opposition forces with lethal weaponry. The reality that such support has been more rhetorical than real, and has done nothing to alter the military balance, makes US warnings appear empty.
So what should be done if the new allegations of chemical-weapons use are true? It is essential to respond directly and meaningfully to any use of such weapons so they are not used again by the regime. But the reasons for a strong response transcend Syria. It will be a very different 21st century if weapons of mass destruction – whether they are chemical, biological or nuclear – come to be seen as just another type of weapon. There needs to be a robust taboo surrounding their use. Any leader must know that a decision to deploy them will sacrifice sovereign immunity and result in many in the world accepting nothing less than ousting and arrest.
There is also the more immediate question of American credibility. A president of the US cannot say something crosses a red line and then go on conducting business as usual. Doing so dilutes the impact of both threats to foes and assurances to friends. There is no way of knowing if past US inaction may have emboldened the regime to again use chemicals, but it is all too possible that not following through on threats could have consequences where the stakes are arguably larger – namely, Iran. On numerous occasions this president has said the US had no interest in containing an Iran with nuclear weapons but rather was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. A president cannot afford to be selective when it comes to drawing red lines if he wants them to be respected.
There is, however, another consideration to take into account. This administration and the world have shown considerable caution about being drawn into the Syrian imbroglio, fearing for good reason that direct military involvement could prove costly by every measure and that many in the opposition constitute an alternative no better than the odious regime they are fighting. In the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy can still be your enemy.
Indeed, the top military figure in the US, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, argued in a letter to a congressman just this week that the US should largely remain militarily aloof from Syria given the weak and divided nature of the opposition and the poor prospects for military options making an appreciable difference. Implicit in his letter was the view that large-scale military involvement would be a costly strategic distraction of uncertain promise.
Is there a way, then, to balance both the need to respond and the need for restraint? Two initiatives come to mind. The first would be to launch cruise missile strikes against select targets: anything associated with chemical weapons, command and control sites, and airfields used by government forces. The second would be to make good on the promise to supply those opposition forces deemed politically acceptable with significant numbers of anti-air and anti-armour capabilities.
Such a punitive response sends the message that use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated and will be costly for the regime. It does not preclude additional responses if warranted. But a limited action of this sort avoids enmeshing the US or any other government joining the effort in open-ended involvement in Syria's civil war.
Such action is likely to be too much for some and not enough for others; be that as it may, it offers a way to reinforce critical norms without getting drawn into a costly and uncertain war.
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