Has Syria Crossed the “Red Line”?

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Israel, the United States, the UK and other nations have confirmed with varying degrees of certainty the use of chemical weapons in Syria. If Assad has indeed deliberately used chemical weapons against his own people, many wonder whether the United States and others will ratchet up their support for the Free Syrian Army. Mindful of his predecessor’s WMD claims, President Obama has struck a cautious tone regarding the evidence, though he stated that, should the use of such weapons be confirmed, the U.S. would be forced to take concrete action against the Syrian regime. Those strong words have not been enough to satisfy many in the region, who see the United States doing too little, too late.  Furthermore, many ask whether concrete evidence of the use of chemical weapons is even necessary, given the Syrian regime’s track record.

Commenting on what he perceives as indeciseveness by the the Obama administration,  Gulf News’ Abdullah Al Shayji argues that “the lack of resolve by the Obama administration and the international community to take a strong position on Syria is allowing Al Assad to keep testing the US resolve and cross the ‘red lines’ set by Obama. This poses a major challenge to the credibility of the U.S. and emboldens Al Assad. The onus is on the U.S. and its allies to show unwavering resolve in dealing with Al Assad, who is being sheltered and aided by the Russians and Iranians….It is time to hold the Syrian president accountable for all the crimes against humanity he has committed. This is not the time to hesitate since the region is inching towards more instability and divisions.”

The Daily Star editorial, on the other hand, goes so far as to accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy: “In the two long years since the Syrian conflict erupted, the United States has unwittingly revealed much about its foreign policy preoccupations and motives, all of which point to a nation losing its superpower status and its reputation as the world’s policeman. And its stance on the current chemical weapons debate has only cemented this position….For all its talk of justice and respect for human rights, the U.S. is long on words and short on action, seeming to be concerned only with its own interests, even when children are being killed every day. In this part of the world, at the very least, the U.S. rhetoric is wearing thin.”

A similar sentiment is expressed by the Gulf Today editorial, which is concerned that the lack of political will in the United States and the United Kingdom have further emboldened the Syrian regime: “We have heard such talk before and little in the way of action. The question here is how the international community could remain silent as a brutal regime continues to kill its people with or without chemical weapons. Inaction emboldens the Syrian regime to continue its bloodbath against the people of Syria and the ‘political’ talk from Washington and London is definitely seen in Damascus as the lack of international will to take firm action.”

Then there are those who question whether the international community should worry at all whether chemical weapons have used or not. After all, much more carnage has been caused so far by conventional weapons.  Many regional commentators believe that the mounting civilian deaths at the hands of the forces loyal to President Assad should be sufficient impetus for a coordinated action against the Assad regime, or, at a minimum, support for the arming of the Free Syrian Army. For example, in an op-ed for Al-Hayat, Abdullah Iskandar writes: “Let us assume that such evidence could not be obtained. Let us even assume that the regime really did not make use of chemical weapons. Would this mean that the world, and in particular the United States and the West, can continue to stand idly by and watch what is happening in Syria, and that there is nothing that would call for moving quickly to put a stop to the course the country has taken?”

In fact, the chemical weapon “red line” argument, as the Peninsula’s editorial staff argues, could only serve to delay necessary action: “The use of chemical weapons, if proven, will be a game changer. The U.S. will be forced to intervene in the conflict and expedite the overthrow of Assad. It will also strengthen the position of Arab countries which have been arguing that Assad is a ruthless dictator who will not hesitate to unleash the most lethal of weapons on his own people….Only a thorough and independent inquiry can confirm the use of chemical weapons, but there is no need for the international community to wait for a confirmation for an intervention in Syria.  Assad has crossed not just one but many red lines and it’s time to do all it takes to force him to hand over power.”

Even if there was conclusive proof of the use of chemical weapons in the conflict, the track record of the international community is so bad that, as the Khaleej Times editorial suggests inaction will remain the norm: “The international community has remained torn on the issue of aiding the rebels, especially in the face of opposition by China and Russia. And horrifying tales of attacks against unarmed civilians, forced displacement of people and a surging humanitarian crisis in the absence of basic amenities and food have done nothing to trigger collective action. The world has forgotten Syria and no transgression by the Syrian regime will be heinous enough to make the international community intervene.”

Ultimately, for many advocates of a more robust international involvement in the Syrian conflict, whether Al-Assad uses chemical weapons or not is beyond the point, and ousting the Syrian president goes beyond helping the Syrian people: “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has, for a decade, fooled many figures around the world with his civilized appearance, good manners. Nevertheless, anyone who knew him in reality discovered a callous individual….or almost seven years, Bashar orchestrated a war from Syria under the banner of ‘Iraqi resistance’ against what he termed American occupation. During that war, more than 100,000 people, 3,000 of whom American, were killed….The Syrian uprising is not solely to free the country from the tyranny of one of the world’s worst regimes, but also to save the world from a regime that
has been supporting terrorism for 30 consecutive years.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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