Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Assad's Doing It Again

Many people breathed a sigh of relief when the US worked out a deal with Russia and Syria over Assad's use of poison gas in the Syrian civil war. Instead of launching an airstrike against Syria in retaliation, we would simply remove the remaining chemical weapons.

I did not breathe a sigh of relief; I though it was a bad deal. Given the lack of enthusiasm for an airstrike in Congress and in public opinion, this may have been the best the Obama administration could get. But I think that's because the issue got framed wrong in the public debate.

Here, for example, are some things the airstrike was not supposed to achieve:

  • Destroying Assad's remaining chemical weapons;
  • Involving the US in the war on the side of the rebels.

Here are some things the airstrike was supposed to achieve:

  • Deterring Assad, and every leader of any army anywhere, from using chemical weapons in the future;
  • Reducing the killing of civilians in Syria.
Clearly, removing Assad's chemical weapons does not accomplish those goals. It's not a deterrent to tell someone, "If you ever write another check, I'll take away the checkbook." There's nothing to lose by writing a check, and you might get away with it. And there's nothing for any future leader to lose by using poison gas. But the threat of an airstrike against Assad's air force is a deterrent; if carried out, it would significantly weaken him in his war. Quite likely, that would make the price of using chemical weapons too high in the future, for Assad or anyone in a similar situation.

As for protecting civilians, removing Assad's chemical weapons has not discouraged him in the least from using his air force against civilians. Whether through depraved indifference or conscious policy, thousands of civilians have died in air attacks. Many of those people might have been saved by anything that weakened his air force.

Now come credible reports that Assad's air force has dropped bombs containing chlorine gas. Chlorine was the first lethal gas used in warfare. It has common industrial uses (municipal water treatment, for example), so it was not among the banned chemicals now being removed from Syria. But its use in warfare is clearly illegal and a war crime.

Assad obviously has not been deterred. In fact, not to take it too personally, he is thumbing his nose at us. This is not good for world stability and maintenance of civilized norms.

We need to respond with an air strike against Assad. Obama must do what for some reason he hates to do, which is go on TV and explain to people why we should do this.

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