The chemical weapons of Syria, a chemical question for Obama

The chemical weapons of Syria, a chemical question for Obama

Upon recent allegations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, the Obama administration declared last week that it is considering arming moderate Syrian rebels. Meanwhile the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, made a decision for his organization to be more deeply involved in Syria and warned that they would not allow the country “to fall into the hands” of America, Israel and Islamic extremists. Another development last week was that Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, declared his intention to resign in the coming weeks, marking the end of another doomed U.N. diplomatic effort to end the Syria crisis that has left over 70,000 dead so far.

The more complicated the picture gets, the more pressure is applied on Obama. British, French, Israeli administrations and even the White House said there is evidence of the use of Sarin nerve gas by the Assad regime. Yet, Obama said more confirmation of “what was used and by whom” is needed to mobilize the international community. He seems to have taken the right lesson from Iraq where it turned out there were neither nuclear nor chemical weapons that intelligence had indicated. He emphasized that the use of chemical weapons represents “a game-changer not simply for the U.S., but for the international community.”

It is crystal clear. Obama who had underlined the use of chemical weapons as the red line, now shifts the emphasis from a red line that triggers U.S. action to a red line that triggers international action. As a president who wants to stay out of the Syrian war, he makes it clear that the U.S. response is dependent on the response of the international community. And amidst international inertia, he is trying to find the best of the bad options which only ends up with inaction.

This is not only due to the trauma of the catastrophic Afghanistan and Iraq experiences. The growing influence of Islamist groups in Syrian rebel ranks is another concern since they could well create a radical Islamist state in post-Assad Syria. In addition, overt intervention would possibly bring about conflict with Russia, Iran and possibly China. Plus, another Middle Eastern conflict would undermine Obama’s domestic agenda. The latest CBS News poll shows a majority of Americans don’t believe the U.S. has a responsibility to wade into the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, inaction only enables the Assad regime to buy time, strengthens Islamist fractions even further, draws regional actors such as Hezbollah more into the picture and is also interpreted as a sign of weakness of America’s international leadership and Obama’s stature.

Some things are more than just themselves. Syria is more than just a country. Hence intervening in Syria is more than intervening in a country. Neither Obama, nor Ankara, Tel Aviv, Tehran or the Gulf countries ever had an interest in getting engaged in a crisis in neighboring Syria. Yet it becomes everyday more and more urgent to take a decision and act accordingly. Even though the choice seems to be made between two undesirable options, namely a relatively stable but radical Islamist state or an unstable authoritarian regime, in fact it is not. There is only one option and that is decisive international action. The only choice you have got is between taking it or not.