I’m going to head some folks off at the pass right from the start with this column because I know they’ll be fuming just from reading my headline.
I know there are lots of people who believe 1) we waited too long to go after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people; 2) shouldn’t intervene in any way, shape or form; or 3) should keep only to diplomatic solutions.
Yes, it would’ve been nice if we had been 100 percent, absolutely sure Assad had used chemical weapons on rebel elements and civilians much earlier than we have. Unfortunately, we didn’t. U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration, including the military of which he is chief of staff, had to wait until the evidence was overwhelmingly certain. That happened Aug. 21. I’ve looked at the White House’s statement (released more than a week after the attack, on Aug. 30) and it’s very compelling. The attack took place in the Damascus suburbs. The White House received intelligence from “a large body of independent sources,” including “international and Syrian medical personnel; videos; witness accounts; thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damscus area; journalist accounts; and reports from highly credible nongovernmental sources.”
Right there, I think we can unequivocally say this is not the kind of “intelligence” former President George W. Bush received on Iraqi WMD’s back in 2003. There’s more I could quote from the White House’s release, but you can read it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
So, if we knock protest No. 1 out of the way and conclude that Assad did, indeed, use chemical weapons on his own people on at least Aug. 21, if not on other occasions, then we’re left with protests Nos. 2 and 3.
Let me actually take No. 3 first, about leaving things to the diplomats.
In his Sept. 4 column, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof argues that “we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well.... It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year.”
Would that actually happen? Maybe. Maybe not. According to at least one account I read, more than 100,000 Syrians have died since the civil war began in March 2011. Some accounts state that half that number are civilians -- non-combatants. Another account claimed up to 28,000 people have been reported missing, possibly abducted by government troops or security forces.
While I would never use Wikipedia as a final source, its section on the use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war is alarming. Accounts date back to December 2012. Counting up all the attacks it listed from then to Aug. 21, it’s possible that no fewer than about 1,200 people have died from gas attacks. The White House report lists 1,429 people killed -- including at least 426 children -- during the Aug. 21 attack alone.
Any way you slice it, if you believe chemical weapons were used, then any number is too high.
One woman commenting on Kristof’s Facebook page asked why Obama wouldn’t turn to new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is seen as a moderate and, per the Reuters news service, confirmed Syria used chemical weapons and “called for the international community to prevent their use.”
That’s not a bad idea, and I’m not saying Kristof is absolutely right about everything in his column. I’m just concerned that it’s too little too late. This civil war’s been going on for two years and Assad has, practically from the beginning, been seen as intractable.
This part of the argument also wonders why we haven’t intervened in other parts of the world on other conflicts. I have no good answer for that, except that we have, in various places at various times. Right now, Syria is on the plate.
Finally, back to No. 2, that we shouldn’t intervene at all.
That we are far past that should now be obvious. What’s not is exactly how we should respond. The administration wants to use cruise missiles to strike specific targets to “degrade Assad’s capabilities when it comes to chemical weapons,” as the president said in the Rose Garden on Aug. 31.
President Obama considers that “appropriate and proportional.”
Now I’ve been branded a liberal for a long time, and I admit to leaning that way but consider myself a moderate. I also consider myself relatively non-violent and don’t like war.
In this case, I’m all in favor of the president’s actions -- and perhaps more. Perhaps. No, this is not Afghanistan or Iraq. In some ways, this is actually worse. I think the missile strikes are a first step. If Assad doesn’t back down -- step down would be best -- then I think we might have to find other ways to help the Syrian people remove him from power. Whether that’s financial aid, arms or something more, I don’t know.
America is war weary, and rightly so. But I’ll ask the same question the president asked in the Rose Garden: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” He later said “We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”
I, for one, agree, and want Assad gone.