President Obama has concluded that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
“We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the [Syrian] opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences,” Obama told the PBS NewsHour Wednesday.
Assad has used chemical weapons before, crossing the president’s so-called “red line.” But the attack last week in a Damascus suburb, which killed hundreds of civilians, leaves the administration with little choice but to respond militarily.
It’s a tough decision for a president who campaigned against the Iraq War, and who has successfully ended U.S participation in that conflict as well as winding down the involvement of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
But it is the right decision. The international community long ago concluded that the use of chemical weapons, which kill indiscriminately, is unacceptable. Any regime that uses such weapons is beyond the pale and must suffer repercussions. As Eugene Robinson has pointed out, “If one tinhorn despot is allowed to get away with gassing his opponents, other thuggish strongmen — a category of which there is no shortage — will be emboldened to follow suit.”
Obama has been reluctant to enter the Syrian morass, for good reasons. Supporting the rebel opposition against Assad would be difficult at best. The rebels are a coalition which includes Islamic radicals. How would the United States insure that military support reaches the “right” rebels? Similarly, any American involvement aimed at regime change risks having to deal with the regime that would follow Assad’s.
What’s left? U.S. officials have indicated that the action under consideration will be “limited,” aimed at specific targets and lasting only a day or two. The attacks would involve scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Chemical weapons storage sites would not be targeted, for fear of a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.
Strikes would focus on the military units responsible for the chemical attacks. Under likely inclusion on a list of targets are air bases where Syria’s Russian-made attack helicopters are deployed, other conventional military targets, and command and control centers.
A limited strike will not change the course of the civil war in which more than 100,000 Syrians have died. The Assad regime is amply stocked with military weapons, thanks to Russia, giving it a huge advantage over the rebel coalition. Most of the fighting is neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Cruise missile attacks will not help the rebels much.
Remote attacks such as those contemplated risk civilian casualties, especially since Assad has embedded many potential targets in Syrian cities and communities. In addition, there is the risk of escalation, of the United States being drawn into the protracted Syrian conflict.
Tomahawk cruise missiles can fly under most radar for 1,000 miles and land within feet of their target. Sill, the question of whether they are effective is open. The United States used them against Iraq in 1993 to retaliate for Saddam Hussein’s assassination plot against former President George H.W. Bush. President Clinton’s administration employed cruise missiles again in August 1998 against Sudan and Afghanistan for their involvement in terrorist attacks on American embassies in east Africa and again later that year against Iraq for Saddam’s refusal to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. In none of these instances did the attacks accomplish their goals.
Though the risks of an attack are great, though the chances of success limited, and though Obama came to the presidency pledged to use American power sparingly, the heinousness of chemical warfare dictates a response. Assad’s brutal regime must be “punished,” if only because American action might make him think twice before using these outlawed weapons again.
And it might deter some other dictator in some other place at some other time.