The red line: Chemical weapons in Syria

Article Highlights

  • White House admitted what has been known for some time: The Syrian regime used chemical weapons.

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  • This administration has mastered the art of defining deviancy down.

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  • Thousands of Syrians have been murdered by a predatory regime. Will we remain indifferent to their plight?

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The White House today admitted what has been known for some time: The Syrian regime used chemical weapons to attack its own people. The opposition first accused the Assad regime of using chemical agents some time ago, but the accusations were, for the most part, dismissed by the White House. Only yesterday, SecDef Chuck Hagel downplayed the charges, saying, “Suspicions are one thing; evidence is another.”

There are a number of problems here.

  • The Syrian regime used CHEMICAL WEAPONS. This is a taboo that should theoretically excite overwhelming reaction from the international community. But won’t. True, tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered by Saddam Hussein in chemical attacks in Halabja in 1988, to little fanfare. Now tens of thousands of Syrians have been murdered by a predatory regime that has proven it too will not hesitate to use banned weapons to exterminate its foes. Will we remain indifferent to their plight?
  • Barack Obama stated in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” for the United States, a “game changer” that would theoretically move the White House from its position of committed indifference. Earlier reports of the use of chlorine gas were dismissed. Those were bad, but tolerable. Sarin, on the other hand, is expressly prohibited by the Chemical Weapons convention. True, the President has, in the months since his manly assertion about red lines, attempted to render them more fuzzy. CW went from being a “red line”  to something for which the Syrian government would be “held accountable” (see more on that evolution here).

This administration has mastered the art of defining deviancy down – particularly when it comes to the deviancy of rogue states and WMD (read Iran, North Korea, Syria). But having boxed himself into a corner, Obama is now faced with the choice of repudiating his earlier self, or actually doing something. What should that something be? It’s been said, said again, and said a hundred times: Arm moderates among the Syrian rebels. Take out Syrian air power. Take out scud launchers. Create a humanitarian corridor. These are DOABLE goals, requiring no boots on the ground. And while sorting the moderates from the Qatar-funded terrorists fighting Assad is getting harder and harder, surely such a job is not beyond the grasp of the United States of America.

Syria is a stain upon the record of Barack Obama. It is a disgrace that America will not soon live down. So, Mr. President, perhaps now you will heed the wise council of Obama 2012 and change policy.

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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


    Follow Danielle Pletka on Twitter.

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