After two years of assuming that while “Assad must go” there is no need for Western powers to do anything much to facilitate that outcome, recent events in Syria are bringing into focus the possibility that the opposite result may be in reach. Assad, after all, might stay until the Creator summons him to judgment. That might be a long time, since the man is young and appears to be healthy.
Part of Western reluctance to intervene was predicated upon the distaste for Assad’s alternative–a ragtag coalition of rebels fueled mainly by foreign jihadis and foreign money streaming in to support the ideological preference of those paying–Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
That Western powers–now gathering in haste in Washington to charter a new course in light of Assad’s gains–would find themselves out of the game for fear of having to choose between bad and worse is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. By subcontracting rebel support to three Islamist governments the West ensured that the alternative to Assad would be the least preferred outcome Western governments could hope for.
That leaves policymakers in a pickle, but it adds a sense of urgency on the issue of chemical weapons. For if it is true that ultimately this war is a choice between Iranian proxies and Sunni jihadis that include al-Qaeda proxies, who do we prefer to have chemical weapons in their arsenal when the dust settles? The Syrian regime, whose brutality has been proven to know no bounds? Or al-Qaeda’s affiliates, who, by gaining control of those deadly weapons, could in time supply their transnational Islamist brethren with them?
Now more than ever in the last two years is the time for Western policymakers to realize that, whatever else the calculus may be on who wins and who loses in Syria’s civil war, eliminating Syria’s WMD arsenal with surgical strikes is an urgent imperative. If it is operationally possible, that should be the first order of priority for the U.S. and its allies.