This past Sunday, a senior White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity asserted that U.S. intelligence gathering entities have “very little doubt” that Syrian military forces used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb early last week.
This saddles the Obama administration, desperate to avoid further military involvement in the Middle East, with a difficult decision regarding how to respond. Thanks to our own rhetoric - various combinations of Executive Order, chemical weapons treaties, and international law; and the United States’ identity as the “world’s police,” - our only meaningful option seems evident: strike.
First mentioned in August 2012, the U.S. has commented on Syrian use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would alter U.S. policy towards the warring region. This “red line” over the past year has been vague – it wasn’t clear until recently how exactly the U.S. would prepare to respond, or alter policy that, over the past two years, has been strictly hands-off.
At this junction all eyes are on us. The international community has consistently looked to our assessment of the Syrian civil war, which according to CBS News has raged for two years and claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, and our allies have emulated our hands-off approach. This has been the standard policy even as numerous state and cultural leaders have gone so far as to declare the Syrian slaughter of civilians (it is estimated that as many as half the total death toll are civilian deaths) attempted genocide.
In the face of the current crisis, doing nothing after repeated denunciation of chemical warfare would further erode U.S. credibility as an international leader and peacekeeper, as well as flirt with setting a dangerous precedent that would say limited use of chemical weapons is acceptable under ideal international political structure (China and Russia are able and likely to veto any multilateral military strategies proposed to the U.N.).
And, in light of headlines on Monday reporting that U.N. chemical weapons investigators sent to assess the Damascus suburb were fired upon by snipers during their approach, unilateral U.S. military involvement seems more and more likely.
Currently, three U.S. warships with a fourth on the way are stationed in the eastern Mediterranean armed with ballistic missiles (to avoid putting bombers in Syrian airspace) and a list of potential strike targets designed to send a message to President Assad’s Syrian regime and avoid conflict that could “decapitate the regime or dramatically alter the course of the civil war raging there,” according to military analysts.
With all evidence considered (it is important to note that the attack in Damascus isn’t the only alleged chemical assault documented during the Syrian conflict), anything short of a loud, calculated military response would be embarrassing. The U.S. will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, nor should we tolerate turning a blind eye. We must make this very clear.