Syria Chemical Weapons: 3 Things the U.S. Can Do Right Away


Following revelations "with varying degrees of confidence" that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on its own people, the Obama administration has reasserted that such a move would be a "game changer," and would be crossing a "red line." Administration officials have emphasized, however, that the intelligence is preliminary and too little is known, despite assertions from allies Britain, France, and Israel that chemical weapons have indeed been used. In a letter to key-lawmakers on Thursday, the administration cautioned that "intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient" and pressed for a "comprehensive United Nations investigation" to determine if indeed the red line has been crossed. 

This debate over red lines is a distraction from the increasing threat the conflict poses to America's national security and the ongoing slaughter of Syrian civilians. In a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah on Friday, President Obama even acknowledged that whether or not chemical weapons have been used, "a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime." The administration, however, continues to delay action by calling for additional investigations from the international community and repeating the mantra that only a "negotiated political solution" will provide a durable and sustainable end to the Syrian crisis. This two-year delay and overly optimistic rhetoric wholly misses the point that the slaughter will continue with or without chemical weapons, and ignores the fact that a political settlement will only come about if Bashar al-Assad believes he could lose. The time for American military involvement is now.

While the Obama Administration maintains that "All options are on the table," there are certain actions that need to be taken now:

1. Establish a no-fly zone:

First, the U.S. should establish a no-fly zone in Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has an air force with clear military superiority over the opposition and a recent report from Human Rights Watch documented more than 4,300 civilian casualties attributed to Syrian air strikes since July 2012. A researcher who contributed to the report said, "In village after village, we found a civilian population terrified by their country’s own air force." If the Obama administration truly wants to see a negotiated political settlement to this crisis, a no-fly zone will send a message to Assad that he cannot continue terrorizing his people. The subsequent erosion of his military power will push him toward the negotiating table.

2. Arm the opposition:

Second, the U.S. should begin providing the opposition with weapons, a move that would strengthen American ties with friendly opposition groups by assuring them that the U.S. is seriously working to bring an end to the conflict. Recently, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling on the Obama Administration to arm the opposition, saying "it will send a strong signal to Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies that efforts to keep him in power will be in vain." The oft-repeated counter-argument that our weapons could fall into the wrong hands is outdated and self-harming. We have seen that Al-Qaeda is happy to bolster their influence among the opposition by providing much-needed firearms; the U.S. should be working to counter Al-Qaeda by providing an alternative.

3. Declare all business conducted by the al-Assad regime null and void:

Third, the U.S., along with its allies, should issue a declaration that all future contracts with the Assad regime are illegitimate and need not be honored by a successor government. This idea, proposed by the Center for Global Development (CGD) in 2012, would discourage Russia and Iran from providing further assistance to the cash-strapped Syrian regime and would relieve some financial pressure from the successor government. For this idea to work, CGD maintains that only the U.S. and UK would have to participate, as they house the world's largest financial institutions. A declaration by these two countries would put even more financial pressure on the Syrian regime, hopefully encouraging more defections while pushing Assad closer to the negotiating table.

As the Obama administration waits to confirm whether or not the Syrian government used chemical weapons, hundreds more civilians will die and thousands more will be forced from their homes. At the same time, extremist groups will be strengthening their influence with the opposition and the risk of chemical weapons falling into unknown hands increases. The futile debate over red lines would be comical if not for the fatal consequences caused by our policymakers' inaction.

If the objective is to stop the slaughter, the time for action is now. If the objective is to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the time for action is now. If the objective is to find a negotiated political settlement, the time for action is now. The Obama administration's current policies towards Syria are harmful to America's long-term national security and inconsistent with the realities on the ground. The conflict in Syria has already caused enormous tribulation throughout the region but without serious and immediate intervention from the international community, the situation will only get exponentially worse.