President Barack Obama drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the Syrian government crossed it this week when it gassed thousands of its own citizens. Despite the overall horror of the Syrian civil war, the use of chemical weapons is an insufficient reason for the U.S. to militarily intervene. Not only does the U.S. have no moral standing on this issue, but also its actions would have little to no effect in resolving the war and could hurt the U.S.'s reputation in the region. If western actors truly care about the Syrian people, they should provide humanitarian relief to the thousands of Syrian refugees scattered across the Middle East.
First, it is hypocritical for the U.S. to claim the use of chemical weapons is a line that should not be crossed. Given the use of napalm in Vietnam and the white phosphorus in the second Iraq War, the U.S. has no any moral credibility on the issue. Admittedly, the recent use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, Iraq is nowhere near as deadly as the use of sarin or nerve gas. Nonetheless, it can cause severe flesh burns and is prohibited to use against enemy combatants in areas co-located with civilians. More shocking is that newly recovered CIA files indicate that the U.S. facilitated the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. Fully aware that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons like mustard gas against his enemies, U.S. intelligence agencies provided the locations of incoming Iranian troops.
Additionally, there is no strong reason to believe that the use of chemical weapons inherently warrants intervention. Yes, chemical weapons can kill people more quickly than regular kinetic weapons. But this hardly matters since 100,000 people have already died. If a reasonable military intervention could be made a la Libya, then surely we crossed that body count threshold ages ago.
It seems that the main reason for the upcoming military venture is to maintain U.S. military credibility against Iran. This is same reason the U.S. used to justify remaining in Vietnam. Officials feared the U.S. would lose 'credibility' to the Soviets if they withdrew earlier. All for the sake of reputation, thousands more American soldiers and Vietnamese died. And it is even more foolhardy to believe Iran will act any differently on its development of nuclear weapons if the U.S. intervenes or not. If anything, U.S. intervention will only provoke the Iranians to quickening the development of their nuclear arms.
Finally, lobbing a few cruise missiles will not resolve the chemical weapons situation or the overall Syrian civil war. At best, the missiles can destroy the rockets that disperse these chemical agents, not the weapons themselves. Bombing the actual agents could release them into the air. The Pentagon estimated it would take 60,000 ground troops to actually secure the weapons, and thousands more to act as peacekeeping forces elsewhere.
It is also laughable to think that after this mission, President Bashar al-Assad will actually be deterred from using chemical weapons again. He is in a fight for his existence. U.S. intervention may set him back logistically, but if the situation becomes dire enough, he will use his chemical weapons to save himself and his regime. Unless the U.S. commits to the grand and unlikely venture of a full-scale war to remove Assad, he will use chemical weapons to secure his existence.
Militarily, the best option for the U.S. is to do nothing. The U.S. should direct its efforts toward alleviating the suffering of the 2 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. The living conditions there are terrible, and most children at the UN refugee camps do not attend school because they lack basic items like books. USAID has tremendous experience in these situations, and it would be the best use of American resources in actually helping the Syrian people.