Something terrible happened in a Damascus suburb last week; hundreds of people died suddenly after missile attacks on their neighborhoods. Images of corpses of men, women and even little children lined in a row sickened the world. The deed was the most ghastly in a horrific conflict that has endured for nearly 30 months.
The United Nations is investigating what happened and who is to blame. Reports of chemical weapon use in the Syrian civil war are not new. The difference is this incident could prove conclusively that the Syrian government is the culprit and turn world opinion against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Syria denies use of chemical weapons, but U.S. and European leaders don't buy it. Syria has chemical weapons stockpiles. U.S. intelligence detected activity around Syrian chemical weapons sites prior to last week's attack. And the Syrian government was slow to allow U.N. observers to enter the area to determine what happened. All that leads to the likely conclusion that Assad is directing his troops to use chemical weapons against rebel areas, even when civilians are present.
He may be doing so because he feels confident enough of eventual military victory to face international approbation. Assad's forces have stopped rebel advances. Syria's economy is being propped up by Russia and Iran. Plus, the rebel forces — ranging from groups close to the U.S. to Islamic jihadists — are fractious. He may assume that such use will demoralize the opposition and hasten the end of the rebellion.
What happens now may be the turning point in the Syrian Civil War. Last year, President Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for the United States that would move the administration toward some intervention in the conflict. The president now has asked the U.S. military to provide him with possible military options and has moved U.S. warships closer to Syria. It is significant that even Russia, Syria's strongest ally, complained about the Syrian government's failure to quickly approve U.N. on-the-ground inspection.
The Obama administration has a range of diplomatic and military options. On the military side, a full scale ground operation is possible, but not likely. Other options include the use of U.S. naval missiles against Assad's military, arming Syrian rebels and the enforcement of a no-fly zone over rebel areas. But diplomatically, the U.S. should cultivate Russia's new distance from the Assad regime to isolate Syria from foreign economic aid. Assad will fall if his own people turn against him for failing to provide basic economic goods.
The administration needs to act, but not in haste. Critics of the president are claiming he is moving too slowly and should act immediately with military force. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has urged the president to send U.S. troops into Syria. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has argued for arming the Syrian rebels.
But President Obama is not President Bush, who rushed into war in Iraq on untrue charges that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons stockpiles and was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. Had President Bush allowed U.N. inspectors to determine the truth of such claims beforehand, that war would not have been conducted on the basis of false premises. Instead, President Obama is acting in accordance with international law and the shared interests of U.S. allies.
The U.S. needs to be more deliberate today than in 2003. The Obama administration should move with U.S. allies and not adopt the Bush administration's "go it alone" approach. Significantly, other nations are ready to join the U.S. in action. The French government is receptive to the use of an allied force. The British government is considering military action as well.
Placing American troops in harm's way is one of the most important decisions a U.S. president can make. Lives of American troops are too precious to be wasted in an ill-planned campaign lacking clear objectives and a specific plan for achieving them. Any president who takes lightly the responsibility of deploying troops to combat, like President Bush and unlike President Obama, is not fit for the office.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.