Stopping Syria

Thankfully, there is a broad consensus that resorting to chemical weapons is a red line that must not be crossed, and that the Syrian regime must be stopped before it does. Less clear are the means that need to be taken to achieve that end.

January 28, 2013 20:50
3 minute read.
Satellite view of suspect sites in Syria [file]

Satellite images of suspect sites in Syria 370 (R). (photo credit: Reuters / Handout)


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The government’s decision Sunday to deploy Iron Dome in Haifa for the first time may or may not be tied to concerns over a chemical weapon attack emanating from Syria. But the dispatching of National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror to Moscow definitely was.

Amidror met with Russian officials in an attempt to enlist the Kremlin in international efforts to keep the lid on Syria’s extensive stockpiles of chemical weapons, built up over decades.

According to The New York Times, already in November, our military commanders discussed with the Pentagon troubling intelligence showing up on satellite imagery. Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites – most likely the colorless, odorless deadly nerve agent sarin – and filling dozens of 500- pounds bombs that could be dropped from airplanes.

Now, as the situation continues to deteriorate in Syria, and rebels gain ground outside President Bashar Assad’s strongholds near Damascus and Aleppo – including, reportedly, near two chemical weapons installations – fears have grown that either Assad will use the WMDs out of desperation, or that jihadists or extremist organizations such as Hezbollah will get their hands on them. Conceivably, chemical weapons could be loaded in missile heads and launched at Israel.

Critics of the Obama administration have claimed that the White House is not doing enough to stop the fighting in Syria that has claimed the lives of over 60,000 and caused hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee to Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.

Some have pointed to US President Barack Obama’s appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan as CIA director as proof that the US administration is unlikely to intervene aggressively in Syria.

Judging from their past records, these three men do seem to be overly optimistic regarding the impact of “engagement” and “dialogue.”

For instance, in 2008 Hagel and Kerry co-authored an article in The Wall Street Journal arguing it was time to end the White House’s policy of isolating Syria. After Obama’s election, Kerry was appointed key interlocutor with Assad and visited Damascus at least a half-dozen times between 2009 and 2011. And in 2010, Brennan, then assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, called for the build-up of “moderate elements” within Hezbollah.

However, even if Obama had surrounded himself with hawks more predisposed to using military force, there are no easy answers in Syria.

The Pentagon has estimated that to intervene in the fighting and neutralize the chemical weapons threat, the US and its allies would have to deploy upward of 75,000 troops.

Providing funding and support to more moderate elements among the rebels is a tricky business as well. Even if the West could be assured that such aid would not fall into the hands of more extremist elements, propping up just a few groups whose relative sizes are difficult to estimate might accomplish nothing more than escalation of the bloodshed. Perhaps it would even push Assad to resort to chemical warfare.

In an interview with The New Republic published Sunday, Obama articulated his ambivalence about intervention in Syria.

“In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?” Obama said. “Would a military intervention have an impact? “How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?” These are the sorts of questions leaders should ask themselves – and there are no easy answers. Syria’s proximity to Israel makes these questions all the more pressing.

Thankfully, there is a broad consensus – which includes Russia, one of Assad’s few backers – that resorting to chemical weapons is a red line that must not be crossed, and that the Syrian regime must be stopped before it does. Less clear are the means that need to be taken to achieve that end in the most expedient way possible.

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