By Bob Gaydos
Here we go again.
A brutal Arab regime, under fire from rebel forces, is accused of using chemical weapons against its own people, women and children included. This violates every rule of warfare and demands military intervention by the United States, to whom the role of defender of democracy and human decency has been assigned by other nations over the years. But like everything else in the Middle East, nothing about the war in Syria is that clear-cut.
The United Nations, established in part to unify and coordinate worldwide reaction to such atrocities, as usual, is paralyzed. Any effort by the U.S. and allies to get Security Council approval for missile or air strikes against the offending party will be blocked by Russia and China, who have veto power. They do not simply follow marching orders from the White House and are big enough to make that matter. That will probably require the U.S. to put together a coalition of enough nations to give the imprimatur of legitimacy, if not legality, for such a military action.
This will likely happen despite conflicting accounts as to who actually used the chemical weapons -- the ruling Assad government or the rebels -- and with the assurance that U.S. involvement will include only targeted air or missile strikes (remember smart bombs?) and no involvement of ground forces in Syria's civil war. Apparently, it will also occur without a debate on the issue by the U.S. Congress, which is unfortunate since it is the only branch of government authorized to declare war. In addition, a clear majority of Americans, weary of fighting more than a decade of wars in the Middle East, are opposed to U.S. involvement in another war in the region.
Add to these complications the fact that there has still been no convincing proof given publicly that the Syrian military, not the rebels, employed the nerve gas. Rather, Americans have been reassured by a well-respected secretary of state that the White House is certain the weapons were used by Syrian President Hafez Assad's troops and that this is reason enough for U.S. involvement.
Sound familiar? Did anybody in the White House hear former Secretary of State Colin Powell -- who made the case for attacking Iraq before the U.N. -- recently call out former Vice President Dick Cheney for steamrolling President George W. Bush into attacking Iraq with similar justification and no solid evidence? Since that justifiable "moral" intervention lasted 10 years and cost tens of thousands of lives and destroyed a country, it would seem to behoove President Obama to present undeniable proof of guilt publicly before ordering any attack.
Obama, who has until now wisely resisted calls for U.S. military intervention in Syria, drew a red line in the sand to signal when the U.S. might actually get involved. That's a risky diplomatic tool. His red line was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Having made such a declaration and now believing that Syria has, in fact, crossed that line, the president faces a difficult choice. If he follows the will of the American people, recent history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and the lack of publicly offered conclusive evidence on who used the chemical weapons, he would surely not order U.S. warplanes or ships to attack Syria.
However, if he ignores his own red line, other nations that have been given similar warnings about development of nuclear weapons -- Iran and North Korea -- might feel emboldened to move ahead, figuring Obama was not a man of his word. That the American president was all talk, as it were. Then there is the matter of this being a deplorable act that cannot be allowed to go unpunished.
The key questions to be answered are:
-- Who used the nerve gas, the government or the rebels?
-- What is an appropriate response?
Given the American public's growing distrust of the Obama administration because of its widespread spying on American citizens and its vigorous efforts to prosecute whistleblowers -- who might be able to answer the question of who used the chemical weapons -- the president should insist on a full public debate on Syria by Congress. This would be wise especially if he's certain he's got the goods on Assad. This would also be wise given the extended U.S. military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little obvious gain except to the corporations that provide the machinery of war. Obama should welcome a full and open discussion by Congress of the situation and the options.
There is no good choice here. Some party is using chemical weapons against the people of Syria to further its own interests. This is barbaric. Just look at the photos of the bodies of dead children lined up. A surgical air strike or ship-launched missiles, aimed at the guilty parties only and the machinery that allows them to use the weapons, would be a viable military option. But "surgical" air strikes have been notoriously imprecise in the past. Innocent people have been killed in the name of protecting innocent people.
The obvious preference would be for a diplomatic solution that spares lives. That would probably require Obama to somehow convince Russia and China, friendly with the Syrian government, to work with him on a peaceful solution. Assad leaving Syria would be one. If that is not possible and if the president can provide conclusive and independently verifiable (say, by United Nations inspectors) proof of guilt by the Syrian government, and if Congress is given the evidence and conducts a public debate, and if more nations than Syria's immediate neighbors (Turkey and Jordan) as well as U.S. ally Great Britain, support the action, Obama would be justified in launching a limited military intervention in Syria.
That's a lot of ifs, to be sure and war is seldom the answer. Still, there are no ifs, ands or buts that whoever inflicted chemical weapons on the children of Syria must be made to pay.
Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)