The news that Washington and London finally believe Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people is both an opportunity and a series of traps. Both the opportunity and the traps are huge, and President Obama needs to tread carefully to quickly exploit the first and avoid the second.
Credible observers of Syria like my colleague at the Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, have been reporting since December on the evidence that Assad’s forces have used small quantities of chemical weapons in the civil war that has been raging in Syria for more than two years. Like almost everything else in Syria, Assad’s arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons is a legacy of his father, Hafez al-Assad. After the Syrian Army and Air Force were defeated by Israel in Lebanon in 1982, Hafez ordered development of a chemical arsenal to provide a deterrent against the Israelis. Syrian scientists developed an effective chemical weapons program using the nerve agent sarin, a substance 500 times more toxic than cyanide. In 1988 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used sarin in his war against the Iranians and in attacks on Iraqi Kurds with devastating impact.
Syria mated the nerve agent with Scud missiles acquired from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. When Israeli learned of the Syrian program, it considered military action to destroy it but concluded the program was too developed and too dispersed to be susceptible to air attacks without an unacceptable risk that Syria would respond by firing chemicals into Tel Aviv, potentially killing thousands. The Syrian arsenal remains dispersed in numerous facilities, making it a complex military challenge.
By using chemical weapons Assad has crossed not only an American red line, but an international consensus against the use of chemical weapons that goes back to the First World War. He has given Obama the opportunity to break the Russian and Chinese diplomatic support for Syria that has paralyzed the United Nations from imposing harsh sanctions on Syria and a total arms embargo on the Assad regime. Washington is right to demand an immediate U.N.-led inspection on the ground in Syria with a very short deadline.
The Bush administration’s weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle in Iraq unfortunately means that only a UN confirmation of Syrian chemical weapons use will have real international credibility. The U.S., U.K., and Israeli intelligence assessments carry too much baggage to convince skeptics. Even George W. Bush recognized this in 2007, when he told Israel he could not use the American military to destroy a North Korean nuclear reactor built in Syria because of the legacy of his botched intelligence on Iraq.
But going to the United Nations needs to be done with alacrity like Bush’s father did after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The key is to get Moscow to accept that use of chemical weapons crosses the line—and to demand concerted international action, even if it goes against Vladimir Putin’s man Assad. With U.N. proof, Putin can be boxed in. China will not stand alone against a U.N. Security Council consensus. That will leave Assad with only Iran and Hezbollah as allies.
One trap is to avoid taking on a unilateral American military mission in Syria that would lead to mission creep and another quagmire that wouldn’t benefit Syria or America. Diplomacy, an arms embargo, isolation, and sanctions are a better approach. Behind the diplomacy, there is also an urgent need to begin building an international stabilization force, manned primarily by Muslim soldiers (mostly Turks at first, because they are the only capable troops immediately available), which can help end the civil war, help restore order, and serve as a basis for a new Syrian government elected by its people.
There are other traps to avoid as well. Would Assad use chemical weapons against a NATO air operation like the one that assisted the Libyan opposition? Almost certainly he would. It is clear by now that he has few scruples about mass murder, and foreign air bases would be a logical target for his Scuds. He might also be tempted to use them against Israel in a desperate Samson-like move to destroy his enemies as his regime dies. Scuds are notoriously inaccurate, and cities are much easier targets than airfields. Even Israel’s superb defenses would be challenged by a barrage of multiple incoming Syrian Scuds.
Obama has an opening thanks to Asad’s use of chemicals, but it is fraught with peril if handled recklessly.
The ball is in your court, Mr. President.