Chemical Weapons Used – Now What?

President Obama recently acknowledged chemical weapons use in Syria, but underscored the lack of evidence required to link the attack to the Assad regime, saying, “What we don’t know is who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody.” During his press conference, Obama cautioned against “rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence” because it would ultimately negatively impact our ability to “mobilize the international community to support what we do.” For the time being, he advocated continuing a rigorous investigation, using “all assets and resources at our disposal, as well as “working with neighboring countries to establish a clear baseline of facts,” and calling on the UN to lead the investigation.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s response to the chemical weapons accusations has generated a wide range of commentary. Many of the president’s critics, like senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain, for example, repeatedly call for greater US involvement in Syria, particularly in arming rebels and creating a no-fly zone. The New York Times editorial board recently challenged the senators, suggesting that such critics fail to offer a “coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly part of the Obama administration and current professor at Princeton University, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post, also criticizing Obama’s inaction on Syria, essentially accusing him of ignoring “evidence” of chemical weapons attacks, saying that “evidence has been squelched again and again,” but notes that British, French and Israeli statements confirming the attacks have forced the administration to finally acknowledge the problem. John Allen Gay, assistant editor of The National Interest, suggests that Slaughter’s “evidence” should be viewed with caution, however. Regarding the cable sent by the US consul in Istanbul last December referenced by Slaughter, Gay explains that there are “multiple discrepancies in reports of what happened… yet Slaughter’s account removes all this subtlety and contradiction.” Gay further warns that this “seemingly willful blindness to shades of gray in the interpretation of intelligence should awaken memories of the rush to war in Iraq,” and that “Slaughter’s Cheneyesque reading of the Istanbul cable is a fresh reminder of the eargerness for war in some circles – right and left.”    

George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, carefully reviews a long list of complex issues associated with intervention in Syria, frequently drawing on lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. He also specifically addresses the current rush towards intervention on both sides of the political aisle, harshly stating:

“The difference between right-wing and left-wing interventionists is the illusions they harbor. In spite of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, right-wing interventionists continue to believe that the United States and Europe have the power not only to depose regimes but also to pacify the affected countries and create Western-style democracies. The left believes that there is such a thing as a neutral intervention — one in which the United States and Europe intervene to end a particular evil, and with that evil gone, the country will now freely select a Western-style constitutional democracy. Where the right-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the left-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Libya.”

Fortunately, current government officials in positions of influence are still advocating a more cautious approach in handling Syria. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, for example, explained that employing the “military instrument of power” will not necessarily end violence, stabilize Syria, or lead to political reconciliation. He  underscored differences between Libya and Syria’s air defense systems, noting that, “in Syria, there are five times more air defense systems, some of which are high end. The US military has the capability to defeat that system,” he explained, “but it would be a greater challenge, take longer, and require more resources.”

Like General Dempsey, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has also expressed apprehension regarding a US-led intervention, and questioned, specifically, whether the US could even secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.

Obama is wise to defer to the UN for a resolution on the chemical weapons use issue. As Bruce Riedel states, “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 US, UK, and Israeli intelligence assessments carry too much baggage to convince skeptics.” Obtaining this confirmation, if played correctly, can help Obama convince Putin that Russia can no longer support Assad’s brutal regime, he argues. In severing this relationship, China will adjust its stance, too, as it “will not stand alone against a UN Security Council consensus,” Riedel explains.

Undoubtedly, the Syria crisis is ugly and complicated, and becoming more so. Eli Lake of The Daily Beast reported that, according to “recent intelligence community assessments,” the Syrian military has “transferred more and more of its stock of sarin and mustard gas from storage sites to trucks where they are being moved around the country.” To make matters worse, officials warn that militias tied to Assad are receiving training on how to use the weapons. If these statements are indeed true, they demonstrate the time sensitivity involved in the decision-making process. On the other hand, while the chemical weapons issue is urgent, exercising prudence and caution are critical, especially if we hope to avoid another entanglement reminiscent of the all-too-recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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