Joe Gandelman: Syria and chemical weapons: Line in the sand?
Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Syria’s detestable Bashar-al Assad regime — or the beginning of a new international crisis swirling around it? Or both?
A new line in the sand is being sternly drawn by American officials over the Assad regime using chemical weapons, but the question is whether this will be an enduring line in the sand. Abraham Lincoln once said: “Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.” But Honest Abe didn’t anticipate how the 20th century world would look the other way or fail to act as countries dabbled in using chemical weapons on their enemies in war, or even on their own people, despite the horrors these weapons inflicted in World War I and in Iraq.
The catalyst for the issue of chemical weapons being pitch forked into the headlines is a report indicating that U.S. intelligence officials fear the Syrian regime may be readying to use its chemical and biological weapons against its own people as it continues to ruthlessly try to cling to power. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that twice in the past two months, Israel asked Jordan for permission to attack the chemical weapons facilities, but was turned down.
How serious is the threat that this virtually criminal regime will use the weapons against its own populace? Quite serious — because you usually don’t hear several American officials offer such blunt warnings on the same day.
President Barack Obama: “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
Next, from Prague, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We have made our views very clear: This is a red line for the United States. 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 it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”
And, just to underscore that there will be no misunderstanding, White House spokesman Jay Carney: “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.”
Chemical weapons first became notorious during World War I as the horrifying impact of phosgene gas and mustard gas on enemy troops — and on a country’s own troops as wind blew the poison back on them — became known. There have been a host of agreements banning them including the Geneva Protocol. Even so, on March 16, 1988 Iraq’s Sadaam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja: a cocktail of mustard and nerve gas caused convulsions, vomiting, asphyxiation, blindness, and blisters, killing 5,000 men, women and children. The world “tsk-tsksed,” and largely looked the other way. It wasn’t until Hussein’s regime fell that his underlings faced the consequences of a hangman’s noose.
So the question becomes: if the chemical weapons are used in Syria, will there be a response from the world? And what would the political consequences be internationally, and domestically, to countries involved in a slap-down of the desperate Syrian regime?
Is the line in the sand drawn deep? Or will it prove be yet one more line that can be quickly blown away by the winds of international timidity and political and diplomatic expediency?
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.