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Editorial: Obama must act if he has proof of Syrian chemical attack

Published: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013 - 12:47 pm

Authorizing a military strike is probably the most agonizing decision a president confronts. He or she should act only when presented by overwhelming evidence that U.S. security or humanitarian interests would be seriously threatened by doing nothing or by any other option.

President Barack Obama is not there yet in Syria, but he is close. If it can be convincingly demonstrated that the recent massacre in Syria was the result of chemical weapons, and that Syrian forces were responsible for it, Obama will have to act, hopefully with a few allies.

He must do so for several reasons. The president has previously said there would be consequences if Syria crossed the “red line” of chemical warfare. His reputation – and U.S. standing in the world – will suffer if that turns out to be an empty threat. It is essential for the United States and its allies to make clear to the world that chemical warfare will not be tolerated, especially on innocent civilians. Too many in Syria have suffered already.

Ideally, the U.N. Security Council would be the one to hold Syrian President Bashar Assad to account, but that is unlikely as long as Russia and China hold veto power and continue to serve as apologists for Assad and the atrocities he commits. Russia sees Assad as one of its few friends in the Middle East, and appears prepared to back him no matter how pathological his behavior. As a member of the Security Council, China has nearly always refused to support U.N. military interventions. Possibly Beijing is annoyed by U.N. actions in Libya that it could have vetoed but chose not to do so.

It’s completely reasonable for Russia, China and U.S. allies to demand the strongest possible evidence of a Syrian chemical attack before considering any action. While Obama has presented strong evidence to members of Congress, he needs to make public portions that will not compromise national security. Possibly more will evidence emerge as U.N. inspectors finish their visit and report back to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.

In an intelligence document, the British government has concluded that no group other than the Syrian government could have been responsible for the chemical attack. Yet the British Parliament on Thursday rejected military action against Syria, after receiving a letter from members of the Syrian parliament warning that British intervention would “plunge secular Syria, and indeed the whole region, into a cataclysm of sectarian mass murder.”

No doubt, whatever Obama decides must be weighed against possible repercussions. A military strike – even a limited one – could prompt a response from Syria’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah. It would embolden radical jihadists who have taken up arms against Assad and are exploiting the civil war for their own purposes.

But doing nothing could embolden Assad to continue killing civilians, including children, by the thousands. The world community can’t allow that to happen. While Iraq was a humbling lesson in what can happen when bad intelligence is combined with cavalier foreign policy, it must be remembered that limited intervention saved lives in Bosnia. It saved lives in Libya. And it saved lives in Mali. If Obama has the goods on Assad, he should make what evidence he can public and make clear the consequences of crossing one of his red lines.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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