People on Syrian streets are dying horrible deaths, asphyxiated as the air around them gives way to clouds of toxic gas released upon them by their government. Last week, blood samples of the victims confirmed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has used weapons of mass destruction in the form of Sarin nerve gas on at least three occasions, including once on the streets of the rebel stronghold of Homs. Today, horrifying images have flooded the internet of bodies lying inert, otherwise undamaged on the streets of Damascus. Assad has shown a willingness to use any and all means to crush dissent in Syria. These attacks are just the tip of the spear, a small taste of the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the Middle East. Unless he is stopped, there is no reason to assume that these will not continue.
We’ve sat back as Assad has slaughtered his opponents with machine guns and helicopter gunships. We’ve stalled with sanctions and arms embargoes and provided non-lethal aid to the rebels. These were less than half-measures. Had we intervened before, we could have prevented the deaths of 70,000 Syrians at the hands of their ruler and his security forces. We could have prevented Syria from being overrun with foreign jihadi fighters and its middle class from fleeing in one of the region’s worst refugee crises. These things have all happened, but we no longer have a choice.
The United States and United Nations cannot remain on the sidelines of this conflict any longer. President Obama long ago said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime represented a red line that the international community would not tolerate. The time has come to stand by these words.
We do not necessarily need to intervene in Syria unilaterally. Assad has defied international law and the international community on this issue. The United Nations has a legal and moral obligation to punish these transgressions. Russia and China must not be allowed to use their veto power to prevent the international community from acting to prevent further atrocities. If the Security Council cannot agree on taking steps beyond merely tightening economic sanctions, the United Nations has lost its final shred of credibility. The United States is one of the founding members, the host and the primary financial backer of the UN. Without at least an agreement to prevent the continued use of chemical weapons, we have no reason to continue supporting the institution.
The international community should work with the most credible elements of the Free Syrian Army to establish a recognized government. We should use our combined military might to enforce a strict no-fly zone over Syria and send in ground forces to secure chemical weapon sites as necessary. These measures combined with an increasingly well-armed and well-trained insurgency should lead to the quick collapse of the Assad regime.
Obviously, the aftermath will be messy. We must learn from the lessons of Iraq to avoid the alienation of the powerful Allawite minority that currently backs Assad. But Syria is not Afghanistan; it has – or used to have – a vibrant middle class and a modern economy. It has a tradition of national institutions and national government, if not democracy. When we intervened in Libya, President Obama pitched the effort as an effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis. We launched a limited and highly successful effort with cooperation from our allies that caused the ouster of Gaddafi. The potential for – and actual record of – humanitarian catastrophe in Syria are far greater.
We obviously cannot and should not intervene in every insurgency or displace every dictator with whom we disagree. But we can show the world that any leader who uses these weapons will face swift and certain destruction. We will use the judgment of the community of nations and the awesome power of the world’s biggest arsenal to reduce their regime to rubble, and if they survive we will pull then from the ruins of their former stronghold to try them for war crimes. Those children killed in the streets by their own government are not our citizens. But they are of our species. We cannot and must not tolerate the wholesale slaughter of civilians by a madman who cares only to hold onto his throne. We have the most powerful millitary in the world and with it the ability to protect those children, if not from war than at least from asphyxiation. It is long past time to act.