Holding Assad to Account
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a 17-year old deserter successfully made his way to the West in 1981. But he found life there much different from the structured, disciplined lifestyle under which he had been raised in the Soviet Union. He felt uncomfortable with so many options in life demanding decisions. For him, it was too much to handle. He voluntarily returned to the Soviet Union and was executed for desertion.
As the fighting in Syria continues, President Barack Obama exhibits a similar discomfort with the many options demanding decisions from him. But as the death toll there increases, options are decreasing.
Obama made it clear to President Bashar al-Assad there would be consequences for crossing a specified "red line" -- i.e., using chemical weapons. While evidence exists that it happened, what Obama does to hold Assad accountable will speak volumes to the remaining dictators of the "Axis of Evil" -- North Korea's Kim Jong Eun and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- about U.S. resolve.
Despite findings by other Western powers Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people on several occasions, Obama does not accept the finding. He is opting instead to await results of a U.N. investigation. However, Assad's refusal to grant access to the U.N. investigative team leaves the issue at an impasse -- one convenient to Obama who is reluctant to involve the U.S. in yet another conflict.
The White House wants to avoid a race to judgment, made when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, based on allegations Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that were never found.
But that decision involved different factors:
1. Saddam purposefully acted to create the appearance he was developing WMDs to deceive Iran.
2. As reported in a 2004 New York Times op-ed by the head of Iraq's nuclear program, Saddam was delusional, even believing Iraq possessed nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, were the order given, the program could easily have been restarted. If Saddam believed he had WMDs, U.S. intelligence cannot be faulted for believing so.
3. The jury is still out on whether Saddam ever possessed WMDs. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an Iraqi general andseveral Syrian defectors independently reported WMDs were transported to Syria in the days before the invasion. The truth awaits Assad's downfall.
Syria does not deny chemical weapons were used, but asserts it was the rebels who used them. With one of the world's largest chemical weapon stockpiles, Syria keeps them secure for fear of just such an event. With no prior government claim that rebels had accessed the stockpiles, chances are it was Assad who employed them. However, that is for the U.N. investigative team to determine.
As if to dismiss Assad's possible line crossing as a minor transgression, Obama said U.S. intelligence assessed "with varying degrees of confidence "that the chemical agent sarin was used "on a small scale." If so, small-scale use still constitutes use. Just as trespass is committed on another's property by bending but a single blade of grass, sarin tainting a single blade of grass constitutes chemical weapon usage. If so, then Obama's red linehas been crossed.
If Obama wants to hold out for a U.N. investigation, he needs to break the impasse over Assad's failure to give the U.N. access, demonstrating the resolve of which other dictators feel he is incapable.
Setting aside the logic that innocent parties normally cooperate to establish the fact, Obama needs to force Assad's hand. He needs to inform the dictator that if he fails to provide access within a time certain, the U.S. will impose a no-fly zone. If Assad, fearing the truth, still refuses to comply, it can logically be assumed it is because of what will be found. Evidence of such usage dissipates daily, so the ultimatum needs be given immediately.
Obama also seems to ignore the consequences of doing nothing. It allows the fallout from Syria's civil war to spill over into neighboring countries where violence could well trigger the collapse of regimes friendly to the U.S. In Jordan, the resource and economic drain caused by the relocation of 500,000 Syrian refugees is taking its toll. Anti-government elements there will take advantage of the situation to push their own agendas.
The war is sparking sectarian violence in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq, and drawing air attacks by Israel against storage facilities in Syria housing missiles from Iran for transport to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
While Obama's do-nothing policy in Syria is a reflection of America's war-weariness and while he may justifiably be concerned about Islamists coming to power in a post-Assad regime, it is clear by doing nothing these extremists continue to grow in power. Imposing a no-fly zone now may be the last chance to cap that growth by expediting Assad's fall, allowing better positioning for democracy-minded elements to participate in a post-Assad power grab. Continuing to do nothing may well result in a failed state, fractured along sectarian/tribal lines.
Obama's reluctance to act is already allowing Assad to come closer to securing his own "Fort Apache, The Bronx" outpost as rebels close in on Damascus. It is anticipated as rebel fighters gain ground, Assad will be forced to flee Damascus, withdrawing to the security of his Allawite minority coastal stronghold. Recently, Assad's forces massacred dozens of residents in the village of Baida -- the only Sunni "shoals" in an otherwise Allawite "safe harbor" situated within that stronghold. With the rebel noose tightening, Assad appears to be clearing the way now for his eventual retreat. If so, Obama's do-nothing policy will, again, have worked against U.S. interests.
Even if no other justification existed for Obama to create a no-fly zone to expedite Assad's exit, there is the need to ensure Iran is dealt a decisive blow to its global designs for exporting its Islamic Revolution. This involves removing Syria from Tehran's sphere of influence. There are reports that Iran -- recognizing the seriousness of Syria's loss as an ally -- is considering sending more forces to support Assad. Severing the Iran/Syria alliance is critical to the U.S. since Iraq now shows signs of falling under Iran's influence.
Would U.S. intervention in Syria prevent an extremist takeover after Assad? There is no guarantee. As dictators fall, there is little certainty who will ultimately emerge in power when the dust settles. While Libya today is ranked "partly free" by Freedom House, we still await the final outcome of Gaddafi's fall. But even an outcome putting Sunni extremists in power in Damascus is a partial win, as it would leave Shiite Iran with a much greater problem in the region than it would the U.S.
There is every motivation for Obama to finally take limited action in Syria. The basis for doing so is the red line he himself drew and Assad elected to cross. It will cap Islamist power, maximize democracy-minded rebels' power in a post-Assad Syria, hopefully stop the killing of Syrians, release Syria from Iran's clutches and end regional fallout.
In the two-plus year performance of his Syrian foreign policy, Obama has played the role of "Dudley Do-nothing-right."He needs to drop it now to play "Dudley Do-right."
James Zumwalt (www.jamesgzumwalt.com) is a retired Marine infantry officer who has written several books, including one on Iran.