The Time for Talk is Over
By Andrew Gabel
On June 21, 2012, Col. Hassan Hamada of the Syrian Air Force defected in a MIG-21 fighter jet, flying from his home country to neighboring Jordan where he requested asylum. As the Syrian government frantically sought the aircraft’s return, shocking details emerged. Sources close to the event claim that, upon inspection by the Jordanian military, the plane was found to have been retrofitted with a remote-control system and, chillingly, modified to carry and deploy chemical weapons. These assertions are, as of yet, unconfirmed officially by both sides. But if they are true, they would go a long way to explaining why a government in crisis, facing an armed insurrection and teetering on the brink of collapse, would consider a single, obsolete aircraft (a model introduced by the Soviet Union in 1959) to be of such vital national importance. Furthermore, such a revelation would support the conclusion drawn by U.S. military analysts who believe that the movement observed at Syrian chemical weapon caches signals the preparation for their use against rebel strongholds.
The circumstantial evidence alone implying that the Syrian government would use chemical weapons against its own citizens is strong and, for many, persuasive. Yet, regrettably, such evidence appears to be circumstantial no longer. The recent leak of a previously-secret State Department wire on January 16th, 2013 all but confirms that “Agent 15” was used by Al-Assad loyalists during a December 23rd attack on the town of Homs. Agent 15 (also known as 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate) is a military-grade nerve agent that acts as an inhibitor at receptor sites in smooth muscle, exocrine glands and neuron cell bodies located in the central nervous system and in the brain. It is considered so dangerous, and its use so unethical, that the United States military destroyed its stockpiles in 1989. But this apparently has not stopped the Al-Assad regime from using it, indiscriminately, against military and civilian targets alike. If such a weapon was in fact used, it would represent the crossing of a critical threshold the Obama administration set for itself when President Obama declared during an August 12th, 2012 press conference that, “We have communicated in no uncertain terms…that [the use of chemical weapons] is a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing… the use of chemical weapons.” If this statement was anything more than empty saber-rattling, then it is time to match action with words.
More than 60,000 Syrians have perished since the Arab Spring began, according to the most recent figures released by the United Nations. That is more than 20 times the number of deaths on September 11th, over 40 times the number of Americans who died on D-Day and a number that exceeds all American losses during the entire Vietnam War (in less than 1/5 of the time). It is an astronomically high number. Speaking to CNN, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the mass slaughter “shocking” while lamenting the fact that the world’s great powers “fiddle at the edges while Syria burns”. Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. also speaking to CNN, echoed this sentiment stating that there is “not a shadow of doubt now that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed”. What is becoming clear to intelligence experts, international bodies and observers on the ground is that the conflict is escalating. Without foreign intervention, the recent eruption of violence will continue and expand as Syria descends into chaos. The United States has a very simple choice: it can sit back and watch a country’s blood-soaked implosion or it can do something about it.
Now, the United States has neither the will nor the capacity to be everywhere in the world at once. Past experiences, such as the disastrous effort to help Somalia in the early 1990s (portrayed vividly in the movie Black Hawk Down) illustrate how difficult it can be to auspiciously inject oneself into a complicated civil war. Furthermore, recent history has shown an American public and political class only selectively interested in preventing mass carnage. Shamefully, the United States watched passively from the sidelines as hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered in Rwanda and Darfur. On the other hand, there are shining examples of American intervention in the defense of an oppressed and persecuted people. These include the successful efforts to stop the genocides in Bosnia starting in ’92 and Yugoslavia in ‘98.
One only has to ask the free and sovereign people of Kosovo, once an embattled minority living in constant fear of Serbian death squads, whether the United States can be a force for good in the world. In 1995, the U.S. overthrew a Haitian military regime that had been installed by a coup d’état. This endeavor ultimately allowed for the free and fair election of Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide in an operation universally praised for its success. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, for all the difficulties those conflicts have entailed, there are no more mass graves or stoned women hanging from the diving boards of emptied swimming pools. This is not to argue in favor of unlimited foreign intervention; only that, if properly conceived and executed, much can be accomplished through the application of American strength and leadership.
There are no doubt limits to what the United States can do and these limits need to be acknowledged. America cannot just rush into every country in which a civilian has been killed at the hands of a thuggish government. Yet, in the case of Syria, when it has taken place on such a massive scale and with no end in sight, it is incumbent upon a country such as the United States to call upon its significant advantages to try to stop it. The alleged use of chemical weapons by government forces represents a haunting prelude to what may soon be happening on a much wider scale.
Let me be clear, intervention does not necessarily mean large numbers of U.S. ground troops. U.S. airpower, used in concert with Special Forces teams and intelligence assets, was put to devastating effect in Libya. A similar “light footprint” approach, if applied to Syria, could save countless lives. The hard truth is that if America does nothing, no one will. Russia and China both have a strong economic interest in seeing the Al-Assad regime survive (hence why, as permanent members on the U.N. Security Council, they veto all action meant to weaken the Syrian government) while Western allies such as France and Britain are alone too weak, their militaries savaged by decades of cuts and neglect.
Therefore, in the end, the fate of the Syrian people rests in the hands of the United States.
In 1988 Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to gas the Iraqi town of Halabja, home to thousands of Kurds whom he considered to be a threat to his base of power. America looked the other way in the vain hope that by ignoring these events abroad it would not be affected by them. Three years later, U.S. forces were fighting the Iraqi Army on the field of battle in the opening act of a saga that would span two decades and involve two wars, a bloody occupation and an ambiguous future. It is not clear what all the ramifications of U.S. intervention would have been in a 1988 Iraq or what they will be in Syria today. Immense thought should be put into what a post-Assad Syria would and should look like. Yet, with every passing day, the U.S. becomes more marginalized within the opposition forces. For every moment that is wasted through inaction, more Syrians die. Furthermore, it demonstrates that simply ignoring an enemy today does not necessarily preclude one from having to fight him tomorrow.
The quintessential question of the conflict is this: if 60,000 deaths are not enough to warrant intervention, what is? 80,000? 100,000? Is there any limit to what Bashir Al-Assad can inflict upon the civilian population of a country he presumes to be his own? If so, then why wait for another 30,000 deaths to act? How many innocent lives should the U.S. and its allies sacrifice in order to appease their collective instinct for inertia? Up until now, the U.S. has been trading lives for time. But with the specter of chemical weapons now looming over hostilities, the clock is running out. If action is to be taken in defense of the Syrian people, in defense of the values upon which this country was founded and in defense of the values for which it has fought for in the past, then the time is now.