Among the many arguments that we've heard against military intervention in Syria is the claim that, even if Assad ceases to use chemical weapons, he will continue to kill countless innocent people with conventional arms anyway. After all, more than 100,000 Syrians have already been killed in the conflict, and the overwhelming majority of the deaths were not by chemicals. Which begs the question: why did President Obama say that using chemical weapons was a "red line" in the first place?
In an attempt to make a legal case for military intervention, the White House has since justified the use of force due to Assad's failure to comply with international norms. While the unfortunate reality remains that the U.S. will likely be unable to protect many civilians in Syria from other types of weapons, this argument does present Obama with a compelling case for action. Sarin gas, the chemical that Secretary of State John Kerry claims was used in the attacks, is a horribly evil weapon. First developed by the Nazis in 1938, it has since been classified as a WMD by the United Nations. The gas is extremely deadly. "Just a fraction of an ounce of this stuff, of sarin, on your skin could potentially be fatal," says Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. But what makes Assad's use of the gas so terrible is the fact that he targeted it directly at civilians. Chemical weapons are crude and imprecise. And by aiming sarin gas at residential neighborhoods, Assad effectively ordered a direct attack on civilians.
Syria does not mark the first time that a Middle Eastern dictator has used chemical weapons on civilians. Saddam Hussein carried out horrific chemical attacks against Kurdish civilians back in the 8os. Unfortunately, little has been done to deter others from committing the same atrocities, which brings us back to the president's "red line" comment. President Obama isn't defending international norms by upholding international norms, because such norms don't really exist. In fact, perhaps without initially realizing it, President Obama has actually created new norms. Holding the Syrian government accountable for using chemical weapons will show the entire world--and particularly Iran and its allies--that the U.S. will hold anyone accountable for war crimes if given the opportunity.
Civil war is always gruesome and civilians will likely be killed no matter what happens. But what makes chemical weapons so profoundly different is that civilians actually become the targets. A direct attack on civilians is well within our ability to prevent, and we will undoubtedly save lives as a result of creating these new norms.
President Obama is correct in exercising caution up to a point, because Americans don't want to get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. As the president noted last week, "there are ancient sectarian differences" throughout the Middle East, and we can't possibly believe that we can change the region.
We can't afford to choose sides in this war, and there's no guarantee that our side would win. Afghanistan and Iraq have already proved that at great costs. However, despite our limited options, we can still dramatically influence the way that this civil war is fought. By showing both sides that chemical weapons are off limits, we can also set a precedent against the use of chemical weapons around the globe. We must send a message to tyrants around the world. We must tell them that innocent men, women, and children can never become targets of weapons of mass destruction. That is the moral red line.