It’s not just President 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 condign punishment for its use of chemical weapons, gassing residential neighborhoods, and murdering 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.
President Obama, by contrast, says he wants to hold Assad accountable. “We cannot turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus,” he said Saturday. He has asked Congress to authorize him to take military action — something he did not request prior to intervening in Libya.
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 AMIA bombing in Argentina two years later, for the failed plots to blow up jet-fuel supply tanks and pipelines at JFK airport in New York in 2007, or 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 merely to generate more electricity for hospitals and kindergartens.
Were it not for Tehran, Assad almost surely would have been toppled by now. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards have 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 for all the world to see that Russia is a reliable ally, in contrast to America, which has a habit of tossing friends under the proverbial bus.
The international laws that are not being enforced in regard to Iran and Syria also are not being applied to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Only Western nations, it seems, must mind the rules. Among the international chattering classes, detentions of al-Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo, drone strikes targeting AQ commanders, and Israel’s anti-terrorism security barriers excite far more controversy and outrage than does, for example, the slaughter of Christians by Boko Haram, AQ’s affiliate in Nigeria. In Washington, the Newseum considered honoring “journalists” belonging to Hamas, a U.S.-government-designated terrorist organization. The major media yawned in response.
In remarks last week, Secretary of State John Kerry did a creditable job of explaining the seriousness of Assad’s transgressions. “Some cite the risk of doing things,” he said. “We need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing.”
Deciding precisely what to do is hard work. A few ideas to build on: (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) Kerry correctly said that Iranian forces in Syria are “contributing significantly to this violence.” Hitting those forces would send a clear message.
As for Syria’s civil war: It will continue even after a forceful strike. Assad’s collapse remains strategically desirable, but Obama has willed that end without willing the means.
There are those who fear that if Assad falls, al-Qaeda will rise. AQ affiliates have streamed into Syria over the past two years. How strong they are is a matter of debate. But it is possible for both AQ and Assad/Iran to lose. That will require the formulation of a strategy, one that doesn’t disconnect the dots in Syria from those in Iran, Iraq, 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 nauseam how “war weary” we are. Assad is not war weary. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei is not war weary. Al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri is not war weary.
Margaret Thatcher once explained her motivation and determination 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.