There is increasing evidence that the release of chemical weapons has been detected in Syria. As a result, there are increasing calls in the United States for President Obama to make good on his statement that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is a red line and a "game changer."
Rumors are Not Enough
While some, most notably Senator John McCain, site the possible use of CW as a justification from his long-held view that the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war, there are many questions that need to be answered before being certain or close to it that the regime used chemical weapons. There remain a host of plausible scenarios, including unauthorized use by local commanders, accidental release, and even the possible use by Syrian rebels hoping to draw foreign assistance, that could explain the evidence that has been reported publicly to date. It is important to be sure about what has happened and there is no compelling need to act within a few days or even weeks of a detection. Time spent to determine the facts here is time well spent.
But beyond that, there remains the central question of whether the United States has a strategic interest that would justify the use of military force in Syria -- a step that could quickly lead to Americans troops in direct conflict with the Syrian army and rapid escalation. While the United States has an interest in ending the civil war, and its associated human suffering, that may not be enough for some to justify the risks of a third U.S. led military conflict in the Middle East in the past 15 years. Moreover, it remains unclear how being engaged in a major conflict with Syria would affect America's ability to address that is generally recognized at the major challenge to the region - Iran's nuclear and broader geo-political ambitions. It is worth noting that many of those calling for U.S. intervention in Syria are the same voices that led the U.S. into Iraq, One has to wonder why they think the American public are prepared for yet another prolonged conflict in the region.
For many, including myself, the situation to date does not provide a sufficient strategic rationale to implement steps suggested by Senator McCain, including providing no-fly zones, safe havens and additional military equipment to Syrian rebels. All are far too likely to lead the deaths of American troops and trigger a rapid expansion of the conflict. Having just extracted ourselves from Iraq, it does not make sense under current circumstances to now ensnare ourselves in a Syrian quagmire.
Deliberate CW Use Makes It an American Issue
One issue, however, could change this calculus for me and perhaps others; the proven and deliberate use of chemical weapons by Syria's leaders. While we may not have a compelling national security rationale for intervening in Syria to save lives or end a civil war -- sadly other conflicts rage on several continents and do not automatically rise to the level that requires American action -- the United States arguable has a strategic interest in respond to and preventing the further use of chemical weapons and other unconventional weapons, including both biological and nuclear. If we are to have any hope of riding the world of weapons of mass destruction, then clearly making good on our commitments to respond strongly to their use is a critical obligation. Having failed to respond to the Iraqi use of such weapons in the mid-1990s, the obligation is now truly on the line.
Iraq's Long Shadow
Perhaps this is what the president meant when he said the use of CW by the Assad regime would be a game changer. Such a directed step would elevate the crisis to one of regional security and stability implications to one with global impact. However, here too the United States must tread carefully. The shadows on the Iraq war -- both the military risks but also the falsely created and long to be remembered WMD justification -- require the United States exercise due diligence to determine what if any use of CW has taken place and under what circumstances. However, if the facts make clear that Syrian leaders have deliberately used their unconventional arsenal, then the game would most definitely change and require stronger action. This could range from UN sponsored obligations to permit access from international inspectors, to war crimes indictments for Syrian leaders, all the way to a direct U.S. military respond to weaken and punish the Assad regime for their actions. But the facts need to be collected and substantiated. Gone, hopefully, are the days of shoot first and ask WMD questions later.