On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”
Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”
The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”
The question is what, if anything, the administration plans to do about the latest transgression of its vaunted red line. Previous evidence of chemical weapons use wrung out of a visibly reluctant Obama a pledge in June to provide arms to vetted factions of the Syrian rebels. But those arms still have not arrived, apparently, and now Assad is upping the ante–employing chemical weapons again even as a UN team is visiting Damascus to investigate the previous use of chemical weapons.
Assad is flaunting his disregard for the United States and indeed for the international community. France has understandably said that force is needed in response, but there is no indication that Obama will go along. His chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, appears to be dead-set against greater intervention, thus providing an excuse for Obama to do nothing, even though it would be easy for the U.S. and its allies to launch air strikes on regime targets. It would not even require sending Western aircraft over Syria; Israel has proved how easy it is to launch missiles from outside of Syrian airspace. That could be accomplished by both Western aircraft and Western ships. Of course taking down the remnants of Assad’s air defense network, which no doubt has been degraded by military defections and loss of territory, would not be all that difficult either for the world’s most advanced air force.
A failure to act now will expose the U.S. to ridicule as an ineffectual laughing-stock, a superpower that can be defied with impunity–an impression already created by the U.S. failure to shape events from Libya (where the death of our ambassador remains unavenged) to Egypt (where the military junta defies American advice not to slaughter protesters).