EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


August 28, 2013

Column: Obama's options in Syria narrow

Here is how Secretary of State John Kerry summarized the state of affairs in Syria now that it is almost a certainty that President Bashar Assad launched a large-scale chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians.

“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” Kerry said Monday. “It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”

There are some loose evidentiary ends to be wrapped up, but now it seems clear that Assad, who may have launched some earlier, tentative chemical attacks, felt confident enough that he could blow past President Barack Obama’s red lines and openly use toxic nerve agents on civilians.

The problem with chemical weapons and why so many international treaties outlaw them is that they are the classic slippery slope. Once used with impunity, the temptation is to use ever more toxic agents in ever greater amounts.

“This international norm cannot be violated without consequences,” Kerry said. Yes to that, too. But who decides on those consequences?

The United Nations is out because Syria’s close ally, Russia, exercises veto power on the U.N. Security Council. The European Union would prefer the Security Council to act first, but that isn’t going to happen. Failing that, the EU would like to see a “political solution,” but Assad is flatly opposed because any such solution would necessarily involve his departure from power.

That leaves the problem on Obama’s desk. Only 9 percent of Americans favor military intervention, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken last week. The pollsters predicted that figure would rise to 25 percent, still far short of a mandate, if the use of poison gas were confirmed. Republicans will criticize him no matter what he does.

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