The use of what is thought to be sarin gas is a serious concern, and if it was used — the United States has only “varying degrees of confidence” that it has — it was the absolutely predictable consequence of the White House’s policy, which is pretty much not to have one. The administration has steered clear of the Syrian conflict, refusing to take — or support — the sort of actions that could have brought matters to a close a long time ago. Now the situation has descended into what Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy used to call “another fine mess.” It is, I concede, a lot harder to intervene now than it was about a year ago.
The Syrian civil war has taken the familiar course. The fine gentlemen of the middle class who rose up in protest at the stupidities and cruelties of Bashar al-Assad’s regime were replaced — as they almost always are — by young, non-bookish types who are adept at killing. Over time, leadership goes to the zealous, who in this case are jihadists. A secular revolt becomes a sectarian bloodbath, massacre begets massacre and the sweet rhetoric of reform transmogrifies into bloodcurdling calls for revenge.
So, in some sense, the red line of chemical weapons is really a red herring. America’s failure to intervene early on the side of the moderates has already made conditions so much worse that no correction may be possible. Syria does indeed have oodles of chemical weapons, and the challenge now is to keep them from falling into the hands of jihadists, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda ally. If this happens, the jihadists are certain to ship some of the WMDs to their buddies elsewhere — Iraq, Jordan and the usual chaos in the Sahel. If possession of the gas was the No. 1 issue, the United States should paradoxically prop up Assad. He’s been faultless at keeping his goodies out of the hands of the crazies.
The United States, on the other hand, doesn’t control much of anything. At one time, it could have relatively easily imposed a no-fly zone, grounding the Syrian air force, which has been pounding civilian centers. It could have armed the rebels of our choosing. It could have sent a clear signal to the Syrian military that Assad was certain to lose and it should take action. Somewhere in the military was a high-ranking officer who would have liked to spare his country further agony.
Obama’s policy regarding Syria has been a strategic failure. More perplexing and more alarming, it has also been a moral failure. It has permitted — or at least not impeded — the deaths of upward of 70,000 people and created a humanitarian calamity with more than 1 million refugees. The region is being destabilized. People are living in misery. I can assure them that Washington is studying the problem.
Obama must have known that sooner or later he would have to act on Syria. His plan, if it can be called one, is to let events force his hand. He’s issued red lines and virtual ultimatums, so sooner or later he’ll have to do something. He gives the appearance of prudence, but looks can be deceiving. It’s actually an abject failure of leadership.
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