The Obama Administration is now seeking the least bad option for responding to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly brazen use of chemical weapons against Syrian opposition forces. The most recent chemical attack, on rebel positions in the eastern edge of Damascus on August 21, killed hundreds of people.
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “moral obscenity” and that “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated on Sunday that the Pentagon was ready to act if asked by President Obama to do so.
U.S. military forces have been positioned to launch attacks, including at least four Arleigh Burke–class guided missile destroyers. Western diplomats yesterday reportedly told members of the Syrian opposition to expect attacks “in the next few days.”
United Nations experts collected samples yesterday at the site of the most recent chemical attack after being delayed by sniper fire. The August 21 attack came a year after President Obama stated that chemical weapons use would be a red line that would trigger more active U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis.
Reports of chemical attacks in December and March indicated that the Assad regime was testing the Administration’s red line, but the White House slow-walked its investigation into the attacks to buy time to formulate a response.
The White House announced on June 13 that it had concluded that Syria’s embattled dictatorship had used chemical weapons and that it had decided to provide arms to the Syrian opposition as a consequence. According to Syrian opposition leaders, the promised arms have not been delivered yet.
Perhaps emboldened by U.S. inaction, the Assad regime last week launched its biggest chemical attack yet. It may see the use of such horrific weapons as a decisive tool to demoralize the opposition and drive off civilians supporting the opposition near the crucial city of Damascus.
Assad has defiantly called Obama’s bluff. Boxed in by the President’s statements on the red line, the Administration has struggled to formulate an effective response, with senior officials reportedly disagreeing on what course to take as late as last week.
The fact that the Administration remained in disarray about how to respond more than a year after the President laid down his red line is a disturbing sign that does not inspire confidence. The National Security Council staff should have hammered out a response plan before the President put his own credibility—and that of the United States—on the line.
Now the Administration is reportedly contemplating missile strikes to penalize the Assad regime for its chemical atrocities. Heritage’s Jim Carafano has warned: “The Middle East would see this as another effort from the Obama Administration to look for an ‘easy button’ and lead from behind rather than exercise real, constructive leadership.”
The Obama Administration urgently needs to develop a strategy not only to counter Assad’s use of chemical weapons but prevent those weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other Islamist terrorist groups that have flocked to Syria.