Obama can’t ignore danger if Assad used chemical weapons

President Barack Obama has been properly reticent about involving the United States in the Syrian civil war.

There is no shortage of reasons for that.

Having withdrawn combat troops from Iraq, but still having forces fighting and dying in the 10-year war in Afghanistan, Obama is reluctant to enter, even peripherally, yet another war.

Picking sides in the Syrian conflict is not a simple matter. To be sure, Bashar Assad is a vicious despot, but Islamic extremist groups are among the most powerful factions seeking to topple him.

“Democratic” movements in the Middle East and Northern Africa have not proven themselves to be democratic — or friends of the United States. From the popular election of Hamas in Gaza to the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya, the results have been sobering for the United States. The implications for an Islamic extremist group to come out on top in the Syrian war are frightening.

What happens to the stockpile?

While the focus in recent days has been on whether or not Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons on rebels, Western nations have to be concerned about Assad’s stockpile of weapons falling into the hands of his enemies. Most of his enemies are not the friends of the West — and are sworn enemies of Israel.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday that monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons was a top priority for the United States and the international community. “The greatest risk [to the U.S.] is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists,” Graham said. “The longer [the conflict] goes, the more likely it is that you have a failed state, and all hell’s going to break loose in the region.”

If the United States lends strong support, by way of arming rebels or enforcing a no-fly zone, it would likely hasten Assad’s fall, but the result could still be the chaos that Graham fears.

So far, diplomatic pressure from Western nations, including the United States, has not caused Russian and China to abandon their ally, Assad. Perhaps if it is proven that Assad used chemical weapons on rebels, they will join a United Nations effort that would see Assad step down and facilitate an orderly transition to a government that could be reasonably expected to behave as a responsible member in the community of nations. But that is a very large perhaps.

The Associated Press reports that two of the alleged attacks the Syrian opposition blames on the regime took place in and around Aleppo on March 19 and April 13. The other alleged instances were in the central city of Homs on Dec. 23 and in the village of Otaybah outside Damascus on March 19.

Forcing Obama’s hand

If those attacks or others can be verified, and if the United Nations cannot act, Obama’s hand may be forced. While there is a danger in supporting the rebels without knowing which of the factions may prevail if Assad falls, there is a clear danger in allowing Assad to cross the chemical-weapons line with impunity. The United States looked the other way when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill thousands of ethnic Kurds in 1988. That emboldened Hussein and the eventual cost was enormous and is still being calculated.

At a time when Kim Jung Un of North Korea is brandishing his nuclear weapons, the United States and other Western powers cannot demonstrate timidity when an international outlaw uses chemical weapons against his enemies.

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