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Weighing Options for U.S. Response if Syria Chemical Weapon Use Is Confirmed

April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
How should the U.S. act if it confirms that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons? Jeffrey Brown moderates a debate on different approaches between Kori Schake, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.


JEFFREY BROWN: And we pick up the debate now with Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute and professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Well, I would like it to ask you both, starting with you, Kori Schake, where are we in this? What do you make of the evidence of chemical weapons so far?

KORI SCHAKE, Stanford University Hoover Institute: It looks to me like the evidence is pretty strong.

And that the British, French, and Israelis came to the same conclusion I think strengthens the merits of the case against the Assad government, but the president’s not wrong that we should be careful and deliberate and — as we go forward. I’m a little bit worried, though, that the administration is trying to set a standard so high out of concern for not repeating the mistakes of Iraq that we will make a different set of mistakes this time and prevent action out of fear of taking wrong action.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me — we will pick up on that.

But, first, David Cortright, what do you make first of the evidence that at least we know publicly so far?

DAVID CORTRIGHT, University of Notre Dame Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies: Well, it seems that the evidence is very thin.

So far, all we have are some tissue samples, some blood samples. These have gone through several different hands, so the chain of custody is very unclear. To really be certain about this, we need to have actual physical evidence from a site. We need to know when and where these attacks took place.

And that will require on-the-ground inspection. The U.N. was asked about a month ago to send some inspectors. Syria has refused. There are discussions about the terms for those inspections to go in. I think the inspectors are sitting right now in Cyprus. So, I think the top priority is to get more evidence, send in an inspection team, work out the modality so that we can find out what really has taken place here. That’s the top requirement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just stay with you to pick up on the idea that Ms. Schake brought up about the president raising the bar at this point. What do you see the president — how do you see the president’s response so far?

DAVID CORTRIGHT: Well, the bar has to be raised to the point where it’s convincing. The evidence has to be bulletproof, because in order to deal with this, if it is, indeed, a serious use of chemical weapons by the regime, there has to be international action. We have to take it to the U.N.

And we have to convince not just U.K. and France and some others, but all of the members of the Security Council, most especially Russia, that there has been indeed this kind of violation. And if we have that, then we can take action, we can work diplomatically through the U.N. and begin to take more measures to isolate and weaken the regime through diplomatic actions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kori Schake, so are you saying we are at the point you think where we have enough evidence, enough to go on to take some action, and what should be done? What are the options at this point?

KORI SCHAKE: Well, in truth, it’s not clear to me that the evidence has — enough of the evidence has been made public that we can make judgments about it.

So we need to know that, and we don’t know it yet. But it sounds like the intelligence services of the United States, Britain, France, and Israel have come to that conclusion. Moreover, the government of Syria has come to that conclusion. The Syrian government — the reason the U.N. started an investigation was that the Syrian government claimed that chemical weapons had been used by the rebels and invited the U.N. to investigate.

Once the U.N. took them up on it, they refused to allow them in the country. So even the Syrians admit that chemical weapons have been used.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you think should happen?

KORI SCHAKE: I agree that further investigation is probably needed, but it does — if I were the Syrian government, what I would have done to be the most diabolical choice would be to use just enough and make it difficult enough to prove that you persuade the intelligence agencies, but you have a difficult time making the case in public, because then you can put the president of the United States in the position where he has threatened grave action, but doesn’t carry it out.

And that may dishearten the rebels in Syria. And if I were the Syrian government, that’s what I would want to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s the Syrian government. What do you think the American government should do now, given the state of things? What do you think? What kind of action should be taken?

KORI SCHAKE: Well, I think there are lots of actions we should take.

It does seem to me that if the Syrian government has killed 80,000 civilians and has used chemical weapons, that that makes a very strong case for creating humanitarian corridors, take some of the pressure off of the surrounding states, like Jordan and Turkey, who are currently housing so many refugees from Syria.

Establish safe areas inside of Syria. Allow the Syrian rebels to guard and police them, and us, prevent the Syrian government from using military force against them, in particular the way the Syrian government has been terrorizing its own population. It’s firing artillery, and using helicopter gunships.

We have the ability to prevent them from doing that. And I think at a minimum, on safe areas on the borders of Syria’s territory, we ought to be doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Cortright, your response?

DAVID CORTRIGHT: Well, that’s, I think, very dangerous. We don’t need another war in the Middle East.

Let’s focus this discussion on the chemical weapons threat, the possibility of use of these weapons. That is a dangerous concern. And let’s concentrate on what it will take to get the evidence that’s needed and then, if it’s there, to put pressure on them diplomatically through the U.N.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet, and the — just a few incidents that have been reported, even the U.S. intelligence agency itself says there’s varying degrees of certainty about the evidence. So, we shouldn’t be talking about military action, I don’t think, under any circumstance.

Even if we were — confirmed now that there are chemical weapons that have been used, using military force will not deal with that situation. Syria has a huge arsenal of these weapons. If you attack them militarily, that could cause explosions and the release of some of these toxic gases. So military force is not the way to go about this.

We need to first get the evidence. If it’s there, then let’s mobilize the U.N. Security Council, begin to take measures, including possibly targeted sanctions. We tried to get sanctions against Syria at the beginning of this crisis. Russia balked. But if we have solid evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons, this might begin to move Russia and get it on our side in terms of putting some pressure on the regime.

That, I think, is the right step to take. That would begin to weaken them and isolate them diplomatically, and would help to perhaps begin to get a solution to this crisis. We don’t need another military engagement here in the Middle East. The Pentagon has said it would take as many as 70,000 troops on the ground to be able to get some certainty about controlling those weapons.


DAVID CORTRIGHT: We’re talking about another full-scale war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kori Schake, feel free to respond to that, but I want to put it in the context of also what the congressman we heard in our setup talk about, the American public, the lack of an appetite, I think, for more intervention after 10 years.

KORI SCHAKE: Absolutely. The American public is war-weary, and they should be war-weary.

The problem is that the Syrian government is taking advantage of that war-weariness to do truly atrocious, inhuman things. It’s a war crime to use chemical weapons. Right? So they are capitalizing on our desire, as the president said, for the tide of war to be receding.

But, unfortunately, we don’t get to choose whether the tide of war is receding. The government of Bashar al-Assad is making that choice. And the choice that they have made is to kill 80,000 of their own citizens. And the longer that we let this civil war burn on, the greater the likelihood that the rebels will take assistance wherever they can get assistance.

We already begin to see the Al-Nusra Front and al-Qaida-related organizations …


KORI SCHAKE: … who are willing to help fight the evil that the Syrian government is doing …


KORI SCHAKE: … and thereby win a foothold of support in the Syrian public. That is just not in American interests, even though we are war-weary.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and David Cortright, a very brief last word, please.

DAVID CORTHRIGHT: Well, use of these weapons would be a war crime, and we should take action against it. That’s why I think we need to go and get the evidence solid, then go through the U.N. Security Council, start with condemnations, get sanctions, and especially begin to get Russia on our side in putting pressure on that regime.

That’s the most important thing we could do to counter their use of these kind of weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Cortright, Kori Schake, thank you both very much.