Syrian chemical attack an American nightmare

If confirmed, a large-scale chemical attack like Ghouta is unlikely to change the calculus of Obama or his national security team on how best to approach Syria. The only change might be on a diplomatic front.

August 22, 2013 03:04
2 minute read.
A fighter from the Free Syrian Army wears a gas mask in January 2013.

Syrian free army gas mask370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)


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WASHINGTON – The US and its allies concluded months ago that, since at least Christmas of last year, Syria’s nominal president Bashar Assad has tested chemical weapons intermittently on his own people.

The attacks have been small enough that the death toll from any single incident – never more than 40 – has blended in easily with your average day in Syria, where a two-year civil war between Assad and the diverse rebel groups fighting for his ouster has led to over 100,000 deaths.

US President Barack Obama vowed throughout the first year of the conflict to act if Assad dared to use chemical weapons, which are internationally banned from all battlefields. Obama’s attitude toward chemical weapons is similar to his stated position on nuclear weapons: Their proliferation and use sets a dangerous precedent and must be curtailed.

But with reports surfacing on Wednesday that just outside Damascus, in the suburb of Ghouta, Assad’s chemical weapons may have killed upward of 1,000 in a single attack, the US president’s idealist policy, his pragmatism and his distaste for Middle East wars may be approaching an important inflection point.

Obama’s reaction to the small chemical attacks was intentionally muted, and the policy more muted still. Three months after announcing that the US had indeed verified the use of sarin gas on multiple occasions in Syria through its own intelligence-gathering, the Obama administration is only now beginning to ship small arms and ammunition to Syria’s rebels.

Small arms will not shift the tide of the war, which has swayed in Assad’s favor since Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon committed fully to his cause. And since that policy was first announced in June, Assad has only been emboldened, writing off a political solution to the conflict and charging that “there are no exceptions to any means” to end the crisis – comments read widely as an allusion to his willingness to continue chemical attacks.

If confirmed, a large-scale chemical attack like Ghouta is unlikely to change the calculus of Obama or his national security team on how best to approach Syria. Nor will the Pentagon’s assessment change: US intervention would cost a fortune, upward of $1 billion a month, and there would be no guarantee of a favorable outcome. Securing Syria’s chemical weapons sites would require tens of thousands of troops – a fullscale invasion, which no one in Washington will seriously entertain.

Obama has publicly voiced concern over conducting strategic air strikes on Syrian air bases or weapons caches. They may be stocked with chemical weapons already, he says, and the US would then be complicit in releasing their toxins.

The only change might be on the diplomatic front. Western powers might successfully appeal to the better angels of Russian and Chinese leaders, and action at the UN Security Council may finally gain traction.

But ultimately Assad may have determined that the toxicity of his war is too much for the Americans to handle. If that is the case, do not expect Wednesday’s alleged incident in Ghouta to be the last gas attack of its kind.

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