Syria now seems to have not only crossed but trampled all over the chemical weapons red-lines that U.S. President Barack Obama set earlier in 2013. Reports and evidence of roiled out of Syria that a chemical attack had occurred on August 21. Doctors Without Borders reported a chemical assault had killed 350 people and left some 3,600 Syrians sick and wounded. As American warships moved closer to Syria, the scenario points up the complexities of U.S.-Syria relations as well as the dilemma of 21st Century U.S. foreign policy.
The attack also seems to give the U.S. an amount of diplomatic leverage and a moral high-ground it is has not had up until now.
The Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad blamed forces in opposition to his regime for the chemical attacks. State media reported that successful government offensives had forced the opposition to play their "last card." The Syrian Opposition counters that Assad's troops released chemical weapons, citing that government troops were not injured. The truth of the chemical assailant may be impossible to know. (Although, on August 25 the word surfaced that the White House believed there was "little doubt" Assad's troops had used the chemicals.)
Violence erupted in Syria in March 2011 as Arab Spring protests spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Assad's government forces retaliated quickly and fiercely against Syrian opposition troops. Neither side has backed down in more than two years of fighting.
Deaths in the Syrian Civil War are estimated at more than 100,000. An estimated 1.7 million Syrians have fled the conflict, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, Egypt and Europe. The U.S. may begin harboring refugees.
In December 2012, intelligence revealed that Syrian troops were moving the elements needed for mix chemical weapons. Obama issued a plain warning then: "The use of chemical weapons is, and would be, totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
In April 2013, confirmation came that chemical weapons had been unleashed in Syria.
The U.S. has recognized the Syrian Opposition as the legitimate government of Syria; Obama and other world leaders long ago declare Assad illegitimate. For most of the war, the U.S. has also been giving non-lethal aid to the opposition, such as planning, organizational, and technical help. After the confirmation of chemical weapons use, the U.S. opened the door for lethal aid to the opposition.
In 2011, Obama announced the U.S. would lead a NATO-expedition to open a no-fly zone over Libya. That move helped Libyan rebels unseat tyrant leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Americans, and no doubt much of the rest of the world, have long wandered why the U.S. has not led such an effort over Syria.
The answers are multiple. An American intervention could aggravate tensions between Iran and Hezbollah, both seen as supporters of the Assad regime, and Israel. Also, Russia is a long-time supporter of the house of Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin will not okay any removal of Assad that comes as a result of outside influences.
Plus, after nearly a dozen years of war, Americans are wary of embarking on another war in the Middle East. There is now doubt that American forces, perhaps combined with NATO or other coalition forces, could unseat Assad and put an end to his armies.
But the recent American record in rebuilding governments and economies -- in creating atmospheres where the rule of law actually binds nations rather than divides them -- is pitiful.
And yet, Americans are as sick as anyone of the growing casualty count and the horrendous images coming out of Syria.
The question remains. Now what?
U.S. State Department. Press Briefing, Syria. August 21, 2013. Accessed August 25, 2013.
Time. Aid Group: 355 Dead After Syria Chemical Attack. August 24, 2013. Accessed August 24, 2013.
UNHCR: UN Refugee Agency. Syrian Refugee Data. Accessed August 25, 2013.