Published — Wednesday 5 December 2012
Last update 5 December 2012 3:16 am
WASHINGTON DC: Until now the Obama administration has been wary of direct intervention in Syria to stop the continuing violence, which has all the markings of a civil war without any clear winners. The Assad regime has been ruthless in its crackdown of the uprising but conversely the rebels remain largely divided along religious and ethnic lines without coherent leadership in place.
However, with the US intelligence community detecting movement by Assad’s government on the possible deployment of Syria’s chemical weapons against the rebels, the Obama administration has warned of dire consequences of doing so which could result in direct US intervention.
“This is a red line for the United States,” Clinton said during a visit in Prague. “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action.” The White House has clarified President Obama’s earlier statements that it would be “totally unacceptable” for Assad to deploy chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
“We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Sarin gas makes up part of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, which is a deadly nerve agent, which was used effectively against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, which killed thousands.
While US intelligence officials have indicated that they have every indication that there is movement in Syria’s depots, it remains unclear what preparation there has been for the possible deployment of such weapons.
A US official told the New York Times of Syria’s “potential chemical weapon preparation.” With the rebels making significant advances throughout Syria including inching closer to Damascus the fear is that Assad could launch chemical weapons attacks against rebel positions in a bid to halt their advance. While employing chemical weapons against the rebels would be effective the collateral damage would be immeasurable and would constitute mass murder on a scale not witnessed by the international community in decades. Fighting has continued close to Damascus with some suburbs falling within the control of the rebels.
American intervention in Syria could come in two forms. The first would require thousands of US ground forces to secure the chemical weapons and agents but that is only if the Assad government falls and the weapons needed to be secured from falling in the hands of Al-Qaeda linked groups. The second component of American intervention would be in the form of airstrikes but that carries its own risks.
If the United States acted unilaterally, Syria’s allies, Russia and China would heavily object and if airstrikes failed to destroy significant portions of the stockpiles a more robust US presence would be necessary. The problem of destroying chemical weapons is that once they are weaponized then airstrikes will release the deadly agents.
There is no doubt that the US has the ability to carry out any airstrikes but the larger question is whether it has the will. Until now the Obama administration has demurred from offering assistance to the rebels except in the form of non-lethal aid. This overly cautious position by Washington is grounded in reality. While the n0-fly zone in Libya and a heavier footprint was successful in toppling Qaddafi there are still many thousands of weapons floating around Libya, which have also fallen in the hands of rebels who have gone onto fight in Mali and in Libya’s other neighbors thereby destabilizing those governments.
The United States has faced a lot of calls for it to act sooner and more forcefully to try and put a stop to the ongoing violence. Usually this has taken the form of calls for a no-fly zone similar to the one in Libya, which the US pushed through the UN Security Council.
Undoubtedly the US has the means of enforcing a no-fly zone. However, Assad still relies on his ground forces to dislodge the rebels from key positions.
The US would likely need UN backing for a no-fly zone and the assistance of its allies like France and the United Kingdom to help enforce one and thus far a Syrian no-fly zone hasn’t garnered the same level of support. Even if the US begins enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria the mission would carry its own risks. Libya is a far more expansive country and Syria is more compacted with fighting mainly centered in and around urban centers.
The Syrian crisis has gone from a peaceful uprising against the Assad government at the start of the Arab Spring to a deadly stalemate, which has killed thousands. The Syrian rebels have performed surprisingly well with assistance coming at the hands of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states in the form of weapons transfers and other aid. Whether they can be successful and topple Assad will depend on their staying power and whether they can make further inroads into Damascus and other key urban centers.
If Bashar Assad feels threatened enough to unleash his significant chemical weapons stockpiles on the rebels and the Syrian people remains to be seen. If he acts and commits mass murder and the international community does nothing to prevent it the true villains could likely be the United States for not acting sooner.