Syria, chemical weapons and the United States. If nothing else, President Barack Obama last month was emphatic. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad,” Obama declared at the National Defense University in early December, “….The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is…totally unacceptable….[T]here will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
But what a difference a New Year makes. At a January 10 news conference, the administration’s senior security officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin E. Dempsey, recoiled: Consequences won’t involve the Pentagon. Better wait to secure the arsenal after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Panetta said. Dempsey stated: “Preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.” The result, as Panetta explained: “We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.”
Assad must have smiled. Washington had gone wobbly on chemical weapons. With the deterrent value of the president’s remarks in question – and one unconfirmed report that Syria used a chemical agent in Homs on December 23 – the chemical specter remains. This raises the key question: Would Obama really stand by if the Syrian government gassed thousands of its citizens?
Before we answer, let’s hit the pause button for a reality check: Are chemical weapons really more heinous than the bombs that have already killed some 60,000 Syrians. This continuing mayhem has not justified military intervention so far. Why would chemical weapons be different?
Lift the pause button and one suspects it would be hard for the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to a Halabja on steroids – Halabja being the last case where an Arab regime (Iraq in 1988) killed thousands of its people in a chemical attack.