President Barack Obama re-iterated a pledge he made months ago yesterday when he warned embattled Syrian President Bashir al-Assad that any use of chemical weapons would “cross a red line” with the United States.
The Syrian military, which has been under intense pressure from an increasingly emboldened rebel army, has begun mixing chemical agents at several places around the country to prepare for possible counter-attacks on rebel and civilian targets. President Bashir al-Assad is clinging to power after pro-democracy protests turned into an armed resistance movement and has indicated he will do whatever it takes to stay in power.
The Syrian civil war, which has been raging since March of 2011, has seen savagery carried out by both sides, though the scale and scope of government abuses renders al-Assad’s forces the worst offenders if only because they have the necessary firepower to claim that title. While al-Assad’s forces have spent months deliberately shelling civilian populations to force a rebel surrender, the potential use of chemical weapons opens the door for horrifying atrocities on a scale not seen in decades.
One potential chemical weapon Syria is preparing to use is called Sarin. Sarin, a nerve agent discovered by Nazi scientists during World War 2, affects the central nervous system of its victims and can be lethal in even the smallest amounts. If al-Assad were to use Sarin on a heavily populated and restive city like Homs (population: 750,000), tens of thousands of neutral civilians could be killed. The United States has made it clear that such a slaughter would be unacceptable.
If it became clear that Syria’s chemical mixing is more than a head-fake to scare the rebels into submission, the U. S. will likely take some kind of military action. The lack of public support for another ground war after Iraq and Afghanistan, however, eliminates the option of an American ground invasion.
Instead, we could see something similar to the air campaign used to bring down Libyan dictator Mohmar Qaddafi, coupled with missile strikes from American warships in the Mediterranean. Such warfare would be much riskier because Syria, unlike Libya, has a sophisticated anti-aircraft system. That too narrows our options.
The most attractive plan for punishing a chemical weapons strike would involve the US directing and equipping a regional coalition to deal with al-Assad once and for all. Turkey would be a natural leader for a coalition since its border towns were shelled by al-Assad’s forces “accidentally” last month. An incensed Turkey could join with pro-democracy gulf nations for military action, and such a move would likely be supported by the international community if a chemical strike on a civilian population were to take place.
The takeaway from all this is that Americans will not see their country involved in another protracted land war. Despite these troubling new developments in Syria, that outcome still remains remote.