Friday, April 26, 2013

The Thick Red Line - Syria's Intolerable Use of Chemical Weapons

Evidence has been amassing in recent days to support the notion that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war ravaging the country. The use of chemical weapons has continuously been referred to as Obama's "red line;" therefore, the implications of this are quite serious. However, despite the White House having said since the beginning of the conflict that they would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons and would see it as grounds for more substantial intervention, nothing seems to be happening. Without a clear consensus coming from lawmakers and the White House, continued floundering by the U.S. on this issue will have significant repercussions for the Syrian opposition. In a moment vaguely reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994, President Obama's legacy may be galvanized by his wavering on what is one of the gravest issues he has faced as president thus far.

The conflict, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011 and displaced millions more, has reached a new stage with the unauthorized use of chemical weapons. The Chemical Weapons Treaty was signed into international law in 1925, prohibiting any and all use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, the Chemical Weapon Convention, which took effect in 1997 and also prohibits the use of any chemical warfare, currently has 188 signatories (it is obviously worth noting that Syria is not one of them). Chemical warfare ravaged local populations throughout World War II, Vietnam, and in the Middle East during numerous wars in the 1980s and 1990s. The long-term crippling effect of chemical warfare has been universally condemned, primarily because of the lack of accuracy when using such weapons - no other conventional weapons have such a high rate of civilian casualty.

So what is the White House waiting for? Senator John McCain, who has been a staunch supporter of greater intervention in Syria from the start, has voiced his urgence at arming the opposition and possibly even putting troops on the ground. The official statements from the White House continue to iterate waiting for "absolute confirmation" that chemical weapons have been used, but even then, the decision of how to respond has to be made. Options that have been mentioned in the past do include both arming the opposition and putting troops on the ground, but also the more reasonable option of implementing a no-fly zone with Patriot missiles that are already in place in the region. The U.S. demonstrated its ability to successfully wage war without putting Americans at significant risk in Libya in 2011, and need to focus on the details of that conflict more than the details of the botched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because Iraq and Afghanistan are likely exactly what it comes down to: the U.S. will continue to be timid and skeptical of involving itself in any type of conflict in the Middle East, knowing what the possible repercussions would be. Nobody wants to see another 10-year engagement that costs trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. However, the Syrian conflict has not slowed in the slightest  - in fact, it has continued to escalate. If President Obama cannot bring himself to intervene now, knowing that his "red line" has been crossed, then there is likely nothing that will bring him to intervene in the future. The principle of the "red line" has been a metaphor used in numerous conflicts, with some lines being thinner and others being thicker. This one may be perhaps the thickest of all.

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