Threat of Assad using poison gas changes everything

The specter of Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashing chemical weapons on insurgents has given new impetus to U.S.-Russian cooperation in providing Assad with an exit strategy.

President Barack Obama, who has wisely kept the United States out of military action in a civil war, made it clear that Assad’s forces releasing chemical weapons would cross a red line and invite retribution.

Even Russia, which has been far more sympathetic toward Assad than Assad deserved, made it clear that the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable.

And NATO stands ready to respond with force.

There were those who called for the United States — with or without NATO — to pursue an air war similar to that which was successful in toppling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. But establishing safe zones for Syrian rebels would have been more complicated and would have required a far more extensive military operation. Safe zones can only be enforced with air power, and air power can only be used after a nation’s antiaircraft installations have been neutralized.

That was deemed an unacceptable risk. But if Assad were to use chemical weapons, the unacceptable would become necessary. Assad would have to be stopped from making future attacks, he would have to be punished for those he made and a strong message would have to be sent to other rogue regimes that the civilized world will not accept a barbaric practice whose horrors were revealed nearly a century ago during World War I.

Most of the world looked the other way when Iraq’s president, Saddam Husein, killed between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds during a poison gas attack on Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988, but Hussein was eventually executed for other wars against humanity. Assad has to know that the world is watching what happens in Syria. And while Russia has had Assad’s back while he fought to save his regime, he’ll lose that support if he unleashes poison gas.

Broader concerns

And there is concern beyond Assad’s use of chemical weapons, to the dangers involved if his stockpiles of such weapons fall into the hands of insurgents. And beyond that, what happens to those stockpiles if — or, increasingly, when — Assad’s regime falls?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovmet met in Dublin on Thursday, perhaps to finally find common ground on which their nations can address the rapidly deteriorating situation in Damascus.

It would be to Assad’s obvious benefit if his Russian protectors could broker a deal by which he could leave Syria for one of the handful of nations that would be willing to give him asylum. Ideally, such an agreement would give the United Nations control of those chemical weapons. If Assad began gassing people, all deals would be off. And if Assad falls so precipitously that those weapons are no longer secure, the world will be a far more dangerous place.

The stakes are higher than any of us dare imagine.

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