The Economist – August 2013
“WE HAVE been very clear to the Assad regime…that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised,” said Barack Obama a year ago this week. “That would change my calculus.” If reports from the Syrian opposition that hundreds of people have been killed by rocket-launched chemical weapons (see article) turn out to be true, then Mr Obama should keep his promise.
In recent months, those who previously argued for intervention in Syria have gone quiet. That’s not because the Syrian people are suffering any less—far from it. The death toll is now reckoned to be more than 100,000, 2m people have fled the country and a quarter of the population of 23m is reckoned to be displaced within it. But failure to intervene early has had consequences which strengthen the arguments against intervention. Sectarian chaos in the country has grown, undermining hopes that toppling Mr Assad would bring peace. The more fighting there is between rebel groups, the more damage giving them weapons would do. And al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups have gained strength at the expense of the more moderate ones the West would be happy to see take power. The stronger the radicals become, the weaker the case for arming the rebels.
But the use of chemical weapons would tip the argument back in favour of intervention, for three reasons. First, they are banned by international agreement, and if the rules of war are to have any force, then the world must do its best to ensure that they are respected. Second, however unwilling outside powers are to intervene, the world accepts that there are limits to the atrocities that governments may perpetrate on their people: it was the massacre of 8,000 Bosnians by Serbs at Srebrenica in 1995 that provoked outside powers to intervene decisively in Yugoslavia’s civil war. Third, America’s credibility depends on intervening. Mr Obama made no response to a previous claim of chemical-weapons use. It seems likely that Mr Assad was testing the water to see if he could get away with a bigger one. If he is allowed to, nobody will take American threats seriously, at least while Mr Obama is president. Why should Iran or North Korea, for instance, listen to him hector them about their nuclear weapons programmes?
Tread carefully but firmly
Nobody should act rashly in the wake of this report. The opposition’s claims need to be verified. A United Nations inspection team, already in the country to investigate the earlier allegations, needs to do its utmost to get to the site where the latest attacks are said to have taken place.
If the reports turn out to be correct—or the inspectors are not given a chance of verifying them—then the world needs to take action. America should not shoulder the burden alone. China and Russia, who have supported Mr Assad’s regime, must also accept their responsibility to uphold a standard of behaviour to which even they have signed up. But if they are not persuadable, then America and its allies should consider the full range of hard options, from strikes to limit Mr Assad’s fighting capacity, to destroying his air force, to imposing no-fly zones in the country.America is generally a force for good in the world. If Mr Obama does not keep his promises, it will no longer be much of a force at all.