Why Syria Must Not Be Allowed to Cross That Notorious 'Red Line'

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Last week, the United States -- after Britain, France and Israel had already come to such a conclusion -- announced that it now also believes "with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin."

While the U.S. is still ascertaining "all the facts," the question is "what next" if and when we deem that the now-infamous "red line" has indeed been crossed.

The world's media is brimming with opinions and suggestions on what the world community should do about it, if anything.

For Americans, the specters of the disastrous, unnecessary Iraq War and of our troops still dying -- for the 12th year -- in Afghanistan weigh heavily against any more foreign military interventions.

Eugene Robinson at The Washington Post perhaps best describes the conundrum many Americans face:

"And it's clear that the Bush administration did not foresee how the Iraq experience would constrain future presidents in their use of military force. Syria is a good example. Like Saddam, Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless dictator who does not hesitate to massacre his own people. But unlike Saddam, Assad does have weapons of mass destruction. And unlike Saddam, Assad has alliances with the terrorist group Hezbollah and the nuclear-mad mullahs in Iran.

I do not advocate U.S. intervention in Syria, because I fear we might make things worse rather than better. But I wonder how I might feel -- and what options Obama might have -- if we had not squandered so much blood and treasure in Iraq."

In her Sunday Roundup, Arianna Huffington, wondering how Obama should respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons, also laments how "the disastrous and tragic consequences of [Bush's] terrible decision-making on Iraq are still very much with us."

This author, believes that -- regardless of the Bush "aftereffect" -- if Syria has indeed crossed that "red line," the United States along with its allies must stop Syria from horrifically killing and inflicting hideous injuries and devastating life-long health consequences on innocent men, women and children with chemical weapons -- including birth defects to those yet to be born.

The Times, Middle East Edition, reported last week -- accompanied by disturbing images -- that a family in Aleppo had died "twitching, hallucinating and choking on white froth that poured from their noses and mouths" in what doctors believe was a nerve gas attack.

Still, Americans are reluctant to intervene in Syria -- even if chemical weapons are used.

Why is that?

Max Fisher, also at The Washington Post, may have put his finger on one important question Americans may have:

"The civil war in Syria has already killed tens of thousands of people, and the regime has already been accused of killing large numbers of civilians, including children, so why does it matter if regime forces used chemical weapons in small amounts, as U.S. intelligence believes they may have? Isn't that just more of the same rampant killing that's been happening for two years? Isn't it inconsistent, and maybe a bit absurd, to say that some deaths matter more because they were caused by sarin rather than shells?"

Fisher calls it a "legitimate question," but immediately says "the answer is no" and he tells us why.

Fisher says that "it's a big deal if Syria crossed the chemical weapons 'red line'" not just because "killing even just a few people with chemical weapons is somehow different than killing lots of people with conventional weapons," but because it is more than just about Syria: "[I]t's about every war that comes after, about what kind of warfare the world is willing to allow, about preserving the small but crucial gains we've made over the last century in constraining warfare in its most terrible forms."

Fisher describes how various Protocols and Conventions since World War I have prohibited the use of chemical (and biological) weapons and how, with few notable exceptions "the taboo against chemical weapons has held up" and how "[e]ven in some of the most vicious conflicts of the past few decades, otherwise ruthless armies and rebels have largely refrained from using chemical weapons."

It is interesting to note that Syria is one of the few countries not a party to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires signatories to destroy existing chemical weapons.

Nevertheless, Fisher calls this "a remarkable achievement and one of the world's few successes in constraining warfare." He explains:

"Keeping Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime from breaking the chemical weapons taboo is about more than just what happens in Syria: It's about maintaining the international norm against chemical warfare, about ensuring that present and future wars will not redeploy the awful chemical weapons that made the First World War so much worse than it would have otherwise been.

Chemical weapons 'are very useful for killing large numbers of civilians indiscriminately,' Fisher says, but, he points out, 'they're actually much less practical for winning conventional battles.' He continues, 'A chemical war, then, is not just a war that kills more people; it's a qualitatively different kind of war. Their use encourages militaries to seek victory by destroying civilian populations, which becomes much easier to do when you use chemical weapons, than by overcoming the enemy military on the battlefield.'"

Returning to Obama's "red line," Fisher concludes:

"Here's what the norm against chemical weapons is not: an automatic trigger that says the world now has to intervene. As Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione wrote on Twitter, 'A red line is not a trip wire. Point of Obama's warning is not to start a war but to prevent a massacre like Halabja. So far, it's worked.'

Nor is the red line against chemical weapons an implicit argument that wars and massacres are fine just as long as armies massacre civilians with conventional weapons. War has been happening for thousands of years; the world has been working to establish norms limiting war for less than a century, a relative blink in our history, and the chemical weapons taboo is just the start. If we let the chemical weapons norm fall back, we're also setting back any future efforts to constrain war."

Fisher hopes that one day "we'll have norms that also make it a taboo to massacre children or put down peaceful protests with tanks, as Assad's regime has done." But if we ever want to get there, he says, "we have to start by preserving the norms we already have. That does not necessarily mean a unilateral U.S. intervention, of course, but it does mean treating the use of chemical weapons as a transgression qualitatively different from the Assad regime's many prior abuses."

If it is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons on its people, the world -- and that includes the United States -- cannot and must not sit on its hands.

While we have let loose the dogs of war too many times, we must never unleash the hyenas of chemical warfare.

Read more of Fisher's views on an issue of immense human dimension and consequence here.