The Syria Decision: Great Evil or Greater Evil?

Published On April 29, 2013 | By Marc Belisle |

Updated on Tuesday April 3o with video from this morning’s White House press conference via Washington Post:

 By Marc Belisle

US intelligence alleges that Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad has used the chemical weapon Sarin against rebels.  In a letter, the White House told Senators that its assessment is based on “physiological samples.”  UK, French and Israeli government officials have also made recent allegations about the use of Sarin in Syria, though some have stressed that the evidence is of “minuscule” samples and urged caution.  Meanwhile, the New York Times’ “The Lede” blog examines several Youtube videos, allegedly uploaded by Syrian rebels, which allegedly show rebels suffering from chemical agent symptoms receiving medical care.  Evidence is mounting that someone in Syria is using chemical agents.  Obama ScreencapObama has described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that Syria must not cross.  However, this is not just America’s or Obama’s problem; it is the world’s problem to respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The world should treat this development with the utmost seriousness while also maintaining a healthy sense of skepticism.  The lead-up to the Iraq war is an object lesson in why shoddy intelligence should not necessarily spur a rush to intervention.  But there is a qualitative difference between the Iraq situation, in which no one had seen Saddam’s supposed weapons in over ten years and the Syria situation, in which a dictator sitting on a known stockpile is fighting for his very survival and anecdotal and physical evidence is trickling in, albeit blurred by the fog of war.

If we assume that there is merit to the allegations that chemical weapons are being used, this raises a number of questions.  Who is using them?  The most obvious candidate is the Assad regime.  Given the amount of defections from his government and military, though, it is reasonable to question whether use of the weapons was centrally authorized or used by rogue, or even panicked, elements.  The rebels may have used it, even against their own people, which could explain the apparently limited scale, in the hopes of spurring a foreign intervention.  Governments of neighboring countries could have the means and motive to try to trigger an outside intervention, though this is less likely.

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies / Graphic News

How are they using it?  If it is being delivered by mortars and bombs, that would seem to implicate the government.  But the small degree of evidence seems to point to smaller scale delivery.  According to NewScientist, “When the US had chemical weapons, the army, until 1969, gave out small vials of agents, including Sarin, to teach soldiers to recognise their smell – and they were widely distributed. Similar vials used to train Syrian soldiers might have tempted beleaguered rebels.”

Why are they using it?  If Assad is using it, the reason could be to tiptoe across the ‘red line’ so that the world would be too uncertain to respond.  Once the norm of non-intervention is established, he could then potentially gas the rebels like it’s 1917.  This is a very real possibility that must be taken seriously.  If the rebels are using it, their reason would be to spur an intervention.  If smaller, splinter groups of either side are using it, it could indicate a breakdown in discipline and a perceived necessity to use whatever is at hand.

Obama has also said that proof of Syria using chemical weapons would be a “game changer.”  Indeed, the game is now a trolley dilemma with extremely complex variables on a frightening scale.  The trolley dilemma is an ethical thought experiment that imagines the conductor of a trolley is approaching a fork in the tracks.  People are standing on the tracks on either side, and the conductor must make a decision whether to do nothing and allow the trolley to kill people, or throw the switch and direct the trolley to kill fewer people.  This is essentially the world’s choice now in Syria.  To do nothing at this point is itself a de-facto decision with dire consequences.

Until now, the Obama Administration has rightly assessed that the American people have no stomach for further intervention and war in the Middle East.  America’s strong desire to stay out of Syria is evidenced by the fact that Turkey was effectively dissuaded from invoking the NATO charter’s collective defense clause when Syria lobbed mortars into Turkey and shot down a Turkish jet in 2012.  Syria served up an excuse forAnwar Amro AFP Getty Images NATO intervention, and NATO turned it down.

The use of chemical weapons is not going to change the fact that the US, the West, and the world generally, are not interested in intervening in Syria.  Though Obama may now be regretting the phrases ‘red line’ and ‘game changer,’ he shouldn’t.  The use of chemical weapons IS a red line.  And if the world turns a blind eye to it, the international community will effectively be establishing the norm that the cultivation of weapons of mass destruction is an effective way for dictators to keep the world at bay, and that they may use their weapons of mass destruction to cling to power.  The long-term implications are chilling.  North Korea and Iran will be observing the world’s response closely.  If they conclude that they can proceed with their nuclear programs with impunity, this could trigger rippling arms races around the globe, an age of militarism and the ascendancy of a generation of despots in places where development and democracy might otherwise have gained a toehold.

However, there are no good options.  Syria today is at least as chaotic as Iraq circa 2007.  The death toll in the conflict is around 70,000 and is accelerating quickly.  There are reports of widespread rape and torture, and fears of ethnic cleansing.  Among the rebels are child soldiers as young as 8 years old.  There are at least 1.6 million refugees from the conflict throughout the region, and their number is beginning to overwhelm the UNHCR’s capacity to provide them health care and nutrition.  The alleged use of chemical weapons is only the latest in a litany of crimes against humanity happening in Syria, but is an alarming development.

In an ideal world, reliable, allied soldiers would secure the chemical weapons without getting involved in Syria’s civil war.  This is not an idealsyria 3 world.  Assad is likely to fully deploy his chemical stockpile against any invading foreign power.  American boots on the ground is a nonstarter.  After a decade of missionary interventionism, America has swung into its semi-generational isolationist mode, as it did following WWI and Vietnam.  Any politician who suggests an American invasion will soon be updating his resume.  Bombing the chemical weapons would be counterproductive, since they could explode, releasing their deadly agent.  Anything short of military intervention is likely to be futile.  Sanctions would be meaningless against a country driven by civil war.  The West could seriously step up its support for the rebels, but that would also be highly problematic.

There may have been a time when supporting the rebels, as the West did in Libya, could have brought about a relatively stable transition to a relatively sane government.  That time ended a while ago.  While many, if not most, of the rebels have pseudo-democratic aspirations, some of the most hardcore fighters are foreign Islamist militants.  Such a revolution would create a dreadful power vacuum.  It is very likely that if Assad is overthrown, various rebel factions may start fighting each other for control.  According to a rebel general, the Islamist militants are a small minority and would never come into power.  But, their dedication is fierce, and winning a rebellion is not the same as securing the peace.  Terrifying theocratic elements similar to the Taliban could usurp a secular revolution in its aftermath and take partial control of the country.  Iran would also seek to fill the vacuum with its influence, as it did in Iraq.

syria 2Obama is not likely to support the rebels more widely.  The same conservatives in Congress who are pressuring him to intervene will immediately abandon him the moment he does, as they did with Libya.  Obama would find himself in a vice between the right-wing media machine spinning his intervention as support for his secret Islamist buddies and an enraged liberal base crying betrayal.

Beyond domestic considerations, Syria has a few big friends.  Russia and China have multi-billion dollar oil contracts in Syria, and sell weapons to Syria.  Damascus is effectively a client state of Moscow and Beijing.  Russia and China routinely veto attempts to punish Syria in the UN.  The Putin regime rushed to Assad’s defense, saying the use of chemical weapons is not a pretext for intervention.  The West is not likely to do anything that would directly antagonize both Russia and China.  A global diplomatic offensive to pry Russia and China away from Syria is possible, but it’s very late in the game, and it’s not clear what they would want in return for abandoning Assad.  Presumably, it would be something that Western voters would be shocked to learn about.

Beyond Moscow and Beijing, there’s also Iran’s staunch support for its ally, Syria.  Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, have provided significant material and personnel support in Assad’s effort to stamp out the uprising.  Indeed, some rebels reported an air strike from a plane that may have come from Iraq.  The Iraqi government is widely perceived as an Iranian puppet.  Iran is flexing all its muscles to keep Assad in power.  Any intervention in Syria would also be confronted by Iranian power.

The great paradox of Assad’s chemical weapons though, is what will happen to them if he is overthrown.  The ultimate nightmare could be if the Assad regime crumbled abruptly.  Imagine: Syria becomes utterly lawless with various militias ranging around the country, some of them warning that any man without a beard or any girl trying to go to school will be shot, and then a massive stockpile of Sarin gas suddenly disappears.  This potentiality is likely the restraining force that keeps the West from getting involved in Syria.


The frigid reality is that deep down, Western strategic planners don’t really want Assad to go.  Because, unlike Saddam Hussein he really is a dictator with weapons of mass destruction.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the West will not push him too hard, because through horrific tyranny, he has made the alternative to his fall too terrifying to contemplate.  But in accommodating him, we are encouraging others, such as the tyrant of Pyongyang, to emulate him.  This is the trolley dilemma: accommodate great evil, or confront it and risk greater evil.  This is Syria.

Global contingency plans need to be drawn up to secure the chemical weapons in the event of Assad’s fall.  The world should prepare to overwhelmingly coerce, coax, pressure and persuade Moscow and Beijing to let go of Syria.  The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council should prepare to have boots on the ground in Syria to secure the weapons stockpiles.  The effort should be funded through the UN, and backed, if necessary, by NATO air support.  The West and the Arab leaders should support the rebellion’s secular forces in establishing a new government that reflects the Syrian people.  These plans should be ready to execute at a moment’s notice in the event of sudden lawlessness in Syria.

By Marc Belisle | Staff Writer | The Everlasting GOP Stoppers | Blogger at All Things Democrat |

Additional Photo Credits CNN, Getty Images

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Marc Belisle
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Marc Belisle

Senior Writer at Reverb Press.
Marc Belisle is a writer, activist and teacher. He is a regular contributor to The Everlasting GOP Stoppers. He has an Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies.

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