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Syria’s use of chemical weapons requires a measured response

John Kerry

John Kerry

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:14AM

The United States can’t ignore the Syrian government’s likely chemical weapons attack last week, but our nation’s response must be carefully calibrated to avoid making a bad situation worse.

The foremost reason for taking action is to forcefully show the Syrian government it can’t use deadly gases on its own people with impunity. American authorities say there is “very little doubt” chemical weapons were deployed in the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, and the entire world has a strong interest in keeping such atrocious tools of war from becoming weapons of first resort.

Secondly, President Barack Obama last year said any use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” For U.S. diplomacy to function in this and future crises, the president’s words must mean something. America can’t ignore the crossing of that red line now.

Thirdly, international condemnation has minimized the use of chemical weapons since World War I, and they now are banned by an international treaty that most nations — but not Syria — have signed. That consensus could break down if the Syrian government pays no price. Future combatants might calculate they also could deploy some of the thousands of tons of chemical weapons stockpiled around the world, with little to fear.

More than 100,000 people have been killed by conventional weapons in Syria’s two-year-old civil war, compared with the 355 lives that Doctors Without Borders says it has documented have been taken by chemical weapons so far (a number that could grow). Yet the focus on chemical arms is not misplaced. They kill indiscriminately, soldiers in uniform and babies in blankets alike, and have the capacity to be true weapons of mass destruction.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied launching a chemical attack, and even if evidence from the scene demonstrably proves such weapons were used, it won’t show which side deployed them. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Assad of destroying some evidence but said the administration still has documented the use of chemical weapons and will make additional information public in the days ahead. Whatever our leaders decide, the American people need to see the conclusive proof that chemicals were indeed used and that the Syrian government was responsible.

Up to this point, the White House has limited American involvement in Syria’s civil war to humanitarian aid. Among America’s options now is a missile strike against a Syrian military facility that doesn’t warehouse chemical weapons. We can’t risk an attack that makes matters worse by releasing chemical toxins into the air or into enemy control.

But even such a limited attack must be part of an international effort. Although France, Britain and Israel have said a military response should be an option, Russia and China probably would veto any attempt to get U.N. Security Council backing. The Arab League, on the other hand, would be a logical ally. Whatever form a military response takes, it should be a part of a genuine international coalition.

In our nation’s outrage over what has happened in Syria — Kerry called it a “moral obscenity” — we dare not bluster our way right past the real danger of escalating military involvement. We have made that mistake too often before.

The United States has no natural allies in this war. The Syrian government is backed by Iran and Hezbollah, who hardly have our best interests at heart. The rebels include extremist groups tied to al-Qaida. Americans have little appetite for a military invasion that would leave us occupying Syria and attempting to control its warring factions. We’ve had our fill of that in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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