Hinting at military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Paris-based Doctors Without Borders confirmed that at least 355 people died from “neurotoxic symptoms,” something consistent with reports of a Sarin nerve gas attack in the rebel-controlled suburbs around East Damascus. Treating over 3,500 people with various symptoms of poison gas, DWB lent a stark reality to President Barack Obama who said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for military intervention. Obama has resisted calls on Capitol Hill led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for military action, fearing another quagmire like Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama promised, while a presidential candidate in 2008, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only recently ending Iraq Dec. 15, 2011, while the 12-year-old Afghan war drags on, showing U.S. reluctance to jump into another foreign war.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff four-star Gen. Martin Dempsey warned recently about complications for U.S. intervention in Syria. Riddled with multiple competing factions seeking to topple al-Assad, the Syrian civil war shows no signs of resolving itself. Backed by Saudi Arabia, the same forces that toppled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001 are battling al-Assad in Syria. At the risk of alienating Russia, Obama announced June 14 that he’d send arms to Syrian rebels, despite risks of falling into the same terrorists that battle the U.S. around the globe. Russian President Vladimir Putin practically begged Obama to stay out of Syria, believing the regime that follows will further destabilize the Middle East. Under pressure from Western allies, especially Britain and France, Barack finally agreed to supply rebels military assistance.
Lending independent verification to a poison gas attack, DWB has heaped more pressure on Obama to consider military options. “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options—whatever options the president might choose,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, confirming that intervention has become imminent. Positioning an aircraft carrier task force off the Syrian coast within striking distance clearly shows that evidence of poison gas has been mounting. Since the United States usually takes the lead among its Western allies, the burden of cleaning up the mess falls most on the U.S. military and taxpayers. While no one wants another costly foreign war, Obama must have full authorization from the U.N. Security Council.
If Obama gives the green light to take out al-Assad’s military, the U.S. must be prepared for the unavoidable consequences to the region. Russia has warned about an al-Qaeda takeover in Syria, changing from authoritarian to terrorist rule. Unlike Libya where the U.S. knew with some certainty the post-Gaddafi government, there hasn’t been one reliable partner to emerge in Syria. “I ask the international community to move from words into actions, we’ve had enough with words and we need serious steps and actions,” said Ahmad Jarba, Leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the presumed group most likely to lead an interim government in a post-al-Assad transition. Unlike Libya, where there was consensus on the Security Council, deteriorated relations with Russia and China make approval of a “use-of-force” resolution more difficult, despite verification of a poison gas attack.
U.N. officials have long argued that the current humanitarian crisis in which over 100,000 Syrian civilians have lost their lives warrants military intervention in Syria, without any use of chemical weapons. With the one-millionth Syrian refugee August 23, the humanitarian disaster only gets worse. Without some way of stopping al-Assad’s onslaught on rebel forces in civilian areas the death toll will continue to rise. Given the human and financial toll of the Iraq and Afghan wars, Obama didn’t want to place more U.S. forces in harm’s way. When Hagel says Obama has asked for his options, he’s considering a range of actions to topple al-Assad. While Hagel insists the Pentagon continues to assess the likely Aug. 21 poison gas attack, Syria’s civil war has gone on way too long. Too many civilians continue to perish in what looks like a last-ditch attempt by al-Assad to cling to power.
Pressing the case for military intervention in Syria, the U.S. will no doubt give al-Assad one last chance to cease-and-desist. While given past chances to tamp down the violence, al-Assad will be given one last chance at asylum or safe passage to a neutral safe-haven country. Whether the Syrian government used Sarin or not, it fell into someone’s hands Aug. 21. Pointing fingers at Israel revealed the extent of Damascus’ desperation to find someone to blame. Hagel expressed some concern over the possibility of another chemical attack, should al-Assad get even more desperate. Securing al-Assad’s prodigious chemical weapons arsenal is a real consideration for the international community. “There may be another attack coming,” said Hagel, pointing to the growing urgency of ending al-Assad’s tyrannical rule, with-or-without Russian or Chinese backing.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.