President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would bring "consequences" to Syria, but with nerve gas bombs already being filled, would the United States act before Bashar al-Assad unleashes them? Can they act?
Last night's NBC News report has greatly heightened fears that the Syrian regime plans to use its most horrific weapons—and soon. The use of chemical weapons was long ago singled out as a sort of final straw, one that would force the international community to step in and end the conflict its way, and by any means necessary. However, it's just not clear what the United States is willing to do, either before or after the bombs fall. In fact, it may already be too late for military action.
One option would be to wipe out the Syrian air force, which has decimated the nation's cities for months, but would be no match for NATO or American planes. Unfortunately, if the NBC report is true, and the nerve gas weapons have already been armed bombing them on the ground would accomplish little. It would simply unleash the gas into the air. Even if they haven't been loaded, it would be nearly impossible to bomb all of Syria's weapons sites, since there are believed to be more than 70 locations, not all of them identified, and some of the weapons were already moved.
That leaves some sort of ground invasion. David Martin of CBS News reports that it would take at least 75,000 troops to secure all of the weapons. Naturally, they would all require special equipment to protect themselves from any possible dispersal of nerve agents. Plus, the international Chemical Weapons Convention asserts that any nation that seizes the weapons would be legally obligated to destroy them, a lengthy, complicated, and expensive prospect. Not to mention the matter of actually finding and capturing the Syrian leadership, fighting off terrorists looking to attack U.S. troops, and maintaining order in a collapsed state.
Finally, there's an even scarier situation to contemplate: Assad not using the weapons at all, but letting them fall into the hands of others. The U.S. has seen what happens to weapons in conflict zones, even when given to our allies. The only thing more dangerous than armed chemical weapons are chemical weapons that are missing.
There is some glimmer of hope that the new report could finally convince Russia to intervene diplomatically, but isolating Assad even further through sanctions may only make him more likely to lash out. Hillary Clinton will meet with Russia's foreign minister today in Ireland to discuss the matter.
The most difficult question remains: Why are we waiting for? We know Assad has nerve agents, and almost everyone believes he's willing to use them, so why do we need to thousands of more Syrians to die horribly painful deaths before acting? What about Israel and Turkey? Do they need to be hit too? Everyone keeps talking about what will happen to Bashar al-Assad after he uses chemical weapons, but but what will that matter to the people who are killed by them? If the "red line" is so unacceptable, shouldn't we act before someone crosses it?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.