It’s not just President Barack Obama’s “red line” that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has crossed. Civilized people have long set limits on armed conflicts. Using chemical weapons — that’s been a war crime since 1925. Targeting innocent women and children — that’s been taboo since at least the Middle Ages. Are we now giving up these efforts, saying: “What the hell. Boys will be boys. Barbarians will be barbarians. And it’s none of our business anyway?”
That’s not an unreasonable interpretation of what the British Parliament said last week. A majority voted not to support — not even in principle — a military strike against the Assad regime as punishment for its use of chemical weapons, gassing babies, girls, boys, old men and women by the hundreds. The Brits now join U.N. Security Council members Russia and China — leading members of the so-called “international community” — in favoring cost-free state terrorism. That’s tantamount to licensing it. The rulers of Iran and North Korea are among those taking notice.
Obama, by contrast, says he wants to hold Assad accountable. He has asked Congress to authorize him to take military action. Should Congress refuse, it will confirm an ominous trend. At the conclusion of World War II, the West said “never again” to genocide. Yet genocides have been carried out in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.
There also was Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign against Iraq’s Kurds, and the gassing of thousands of Kurdish civilians in Halabja. I would argue that it was a mistake not to hold Saddam accountable at the time, the late 1980s. Today, however, many people believe it was wrong ever to hold Saddam accountable for anything.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. No one in Tehran has paid a price for the assassination of four Iranian Kurds in Berlin in 1992, for the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association bombing in Argentina two years later, for the failed plots to blow up jet-fuel supply tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in 2007, and to bomb a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
Iran’s rulers threaten Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. They incite genocide against Israelis in clear violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention. That they also are developing a nuclear weapons capability in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is indisputable — though there are those who dispute it anyway, insisting that the Iranian goal is electricity generation.
Were it not for Tehran, Assad almost surely would have been toppled by now. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has boots on the ground in Syria, as does Hezbollah, Tehran’s Lebanon-based proxy. Vladimir Putin, a man who views ruthlessness as a necessary (if not enjoyable) component of statecraft, also backs Assad. By so doing, he demonstrates that Russia is a reliable ally, in contrast to America, which has a habit of tossing friends under the proverbial bus.
Deciding precisely what to do will not be easy. I’d keep it simple:
At the end of the exercise, Assad should conclude that using chemical weapons against civilians was a mistake, one he would not repeat. Other dictators should see it similarly.
To achieve that, serious consideration should be given to destroying Assad’s air power. Planes, helicopters and major airfields are difficult to hide. So are port facilities.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Iranian forces in Syria are “contributing significantly to this violence.” Hitting those forces would send a clear message.
As for Syria’s civil war: Even after a forceful strike, it is likely to continue. The West has an interest in helping Syrians shape a decent future, one in which neither Iran’s mullahs nor al-Qaida’s sheikhs are the dominant actors. But that will require a strategy — one that doesn’t disconnect the dots in Syria from those in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other corners of the Muslim world. It is not helpful to continually insist — against overwhelming evidence — that the “tide of war is receding,” and to repeat ad nauseum how “war-weary” we are. Assad is not war-weary. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is not war weary. Al-Qaida commander Ayman al-Zawahiri is not war-weary.
Margaret Thatcher once explained her motivation and determination as prime minister by saying: “I can’t bear to see Britain in decline. I just can’t.” I think she’d have been mortified by the British Parliament going wobbly last week. And she’d be watching closely to see whether the U.S. Congress follows that shameful example.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.