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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

A red line for American intervention in Syria?

A victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village receives treatment by doctors at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, according to the Syrian official news agency SANA. Photo: AP Photo/SANA, File

Last week, the U.S. government released some sobering news about the war in Syria; chemical weapons have possibly been used in the conflict. In a statement to reporters while traveling in the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry accusedthe Assad regime of launching “two chemical attacks” on the rebellion. Does this mean the U.S. is going into Syria?

Not yet. Danger Room reported that an American intelligence source has confirmed to them that “several blood samples, taken from multiple people”  have tested positive for sarin (a toxin that can be absorbed or inhaled as a gas and essentially suffocates the bodies’ organs).  President Obama told reporters, “we don’t know how they [chemical weapons] were used, when they were used, who used them — we don’t have a chain of custody that establishes exactly what happened.”

In other words, there is strong evidence that people were exposed to the nerve gas but we’re just not sure how that exposure happened. There could have been accidental exposure, deliberate weaponized use, or something else.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a critical point of debate over intervention there. On at least six occasions, President Obama has called chemical weapons use a “red line.” Predictably, last week’s reports of the possible use of sarin elicited calls to “act”, especially by those comparing the violence there to other atrocities, such as those that occurred in Rwanda.

Why are so many pundits (especially after the disaster of Iraq) eager to jump on vague hints of chemical weapon use as validation to attack Syria? One possible reason is that it is persuasive. A New York Times/CBS poll released on Tuesday suggests that most Americans – 62% – do not feel the U.S. has a “responsibility” to intervene in the conflict for humanitarian reasons. Yet in an alternative Pew poll released Monday, Americans registered moderate interest in intervening if the Assad regime were to use chemical weapons.

So then, the use of chemical weapons are not just a red line for Obama, but for the country as a whole. Still, the introductions of these chemical agents do not answer the question of why there is such eagerness to intervene. The humanitarian impact of the Syrian war is clearly dire – by most estimates, over 70,000 people have died in two years of fighting, and there are millions of refugees threatening to destabilize the entire region.

We’ve heard it before; other conflicts kill and have killed in far greater numbers- many without intervention. In Somalia, a famine in 2011 killed over a quarter of a million people including roughly 130,000 children under five. The international community barely shrugged. Somalia’s civil war prevented the delivery of medicine, food, supplies, and access to services, which greatly exacerbated the effects of a regional drought. Conflict created conditions far more deadly to Somalis than anything facing Syria, and there were never the fever calls for military intervention to stem the violence and deliver services.

Some U.S. officials are hesitant about how much good American forces could do in Syria. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey told reporters that he’s cautious about whether U.S. military force could really lower violence on Tuesday “It’s not clear to me that [military force] would produce that outcome,” he said.

It’s difficult to see what the military options are. Strikes to take out Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles would have to be overwhelming to navigate past Syria’s sophisticated air defenses. Strikes would also have to guarantee the weapons be destroyed in one shot (otherwise there is a risk of Assad using them as a last resort “dead man’s switch”). Limited strikes are certainly feasible, though it’s uncertain how they would lower violence or convince Assad not to use chemical weapons. Even sending weapons to rebel groups pose enormous risks of permanently destabilizing the country.

Horrific as the human cost of the war in Syria is, the real danger is the risk of the conflict spreading and destabilizing nearby countries. There are already worrying suggestions that the war is destabilizing Lebanon, but if Jordan, Iraq, Turkey or even Israel start fending off attacks what then?

The danger of the entire Levant (the eastern Mediterranean) falling off a cliff is the nightmare everybody is scrambling to avoid. Problematically, simply demanding an intervention in Syria’s war doesn’t necessarily avoid this scenario. In fact, by ending Assad’s grip on the State could allow the many competing rebel factions – some of which are linked to al Qaeda – free reign in the country. In this case, direct intervention could actually make the entire situation far worse.

There are other ways to try to improve the situation: humanitarian aid, training and perhaps professionalizing the secular and less extremist rebel groups. Broad political engagement is especially important with each group likely to remain there. Adversely, none of these policies directly address the humanitarian disaster progressing Syria and most worryingly, they won’t prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons (if it hasn’t already).

Maybe the biggest danger in Syria is the U.S. getting dragged into another un-winnable war in the Middle East. It is hard to see how any nation benefits from that.