An expert's point of view on a current event.

License to Kill

The U.N. Security Council resolution Washington and Moscow are about to agree on all but ensures more Syrians will die.


As world leaders scurry about New York during this week’s U.N. General Assembly, hyperventilating and bloviating over what to do about Syira, Bashar al-Assad is breathing easy. Though a deal seems imminent between Washington and Moscow for the language of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would force the Syrian government to dismantle its deadly chemical weapons stockpile, the Assad regime can bask in the knowledge that it won’t face any punitive repercussions. Adding insult to injury, government forces have prevented basic supplies from reaching the Damascus suburbs that were hit by Assad’s chemical weapons, resulting in the starvation of infants.

In light of Russia’s continued delaying tactics and the Assad regime’s brutality, the Obama administration must send a clear signal that the military option has not been taken off the table — despite the disastrous reception it received from Congress.

Russia’s adamant refusal to agree to a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which could allow for the use of force if the regime is found in noncompliance, highlights the effectiveness of Moscow’s and Assad’s strategy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the international diplomatic arena and Russia’s U.N. veto to shield Syria from repercussions for what even Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has come to describe as Assad’s "many crimes against humanity."

But while Putin has been the prime obstruction to American military action in Syria, he has also paved the way for Assad’s war machine. The Syrian regime’s Russian-manufactured battle tanks and Sukhoi air-to-ground attack aircraft, once hidden away when Western air strikes seemed imminent, are now once again relentlessly pounding towns and villages in liberated areas. Bombs are yet again being dropped on bakeries in rebel-held regions and residents in Damascus have noted the thunderous bombardments from Assad’s batteries as they target the eastern Ghouta district — the district hit in the horrific chemical attack of August 21.

Mass gassing has now been replaced by a systemic ghetto eradication campaign to close off, isolate, starve, and pummel the inhabitants of rebel neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Russians continue to buy Assad more time in New York.

The atrocities in Syria today may be on a smaller scale than the August chemical weapons attack, but the impunity with which the Assad regime continues its slaughter carries long-term security implications for the United States. In April last year, President Barack Obama rightly proclaimed outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington: "Awareness without action changes nothing … ‘never again’ is a challenge to us all."

But "never again" without resolve merely invites future atrocities. And without a credible threat to his grip on power, Assad will merely continue his onslaught. As Ertharin Cousin, the World Food Program’s executive director, noted: the situation in Syria will continue to "escalate and simply get worse." Another 1 million Syrian civilians are estimated to require humanitarian assistance by the end of next month.

The Syrian regime’s success in so far sidestepping accountability for the chemical weapons attack is also a strategic victory for Iran. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ division responsible for special operations outside Iran, has now been dispatched to oversee Assad’s campaign. Meanwhile, the number of Iranian special forces and Hezbollah militiamen in Syria continues to grow. Assad relies on Iran and Hezbollah to secure his most sensitive weapons systems. To make matters worse, senior Syrian military defectors from the chemical weapons program have warned that Assad is preparing to move his chemical stockpiles to Hezbollah, if necessary, for safekeeping.

If Assad’s punishment is not commensurate with his gross violation of international norms, Iran will surely note how hollow deterrence has become against the rogue use of weapons of mass destruction. The case for intervention, therefore, is not only based on moral considerations — it is based on strategic ones as well.

The Obama administration’s reluctance, and Congress’s opposition, to intervening military in Syria can be attributed in large part to fears that an al Qaeda takeover may follow Assad’s fall from power. When told that many Westerners fear that their victory would presage an extremist takeover in Syria, however, many rebels respond with disbelief — particularly at a time when the Free Syrian Army is now engaged in open warfare against al Qaeda-allied forces throughout the country. Many Westerners worry about the composition of the Syrian opposition, but it should come as a positive sign that Ayman al-Zawihiri, from his distant Pakistan hideout has even issued a decree denouncing moderate rebel forces in Syria.

Let us be clear: the presence of jihadists in Syria is not a product of the revolution. Rather, foreign extremists were allowed to take root in Syria over a period of years through the sponsorship of Assad’s security apparatus.

Western governments have been presented with a strategic opportunity due to the clashes between moderate rebel forces and foreign jihadists, whose ideology is completely at odds with the religious traditions of most Syrians. The line between moderate groups and the transnational extremists have hardened, and the conflict between the two sides is only just beginning. Al Qaeda has denounced the Free Syrian Army for supporting democracy and has already begun to ruthlessly assassinate moderate commanders. In the Free Syrian Army, the United States has allies on the ground ready and willing to fight back against the same extremists that the CIA’s second-in-command once warned would pose the "greatest threat to U.S. national security."

And so, as the diplomatic maskirovka engineered by Russia falls apart, a U.S. military strike, even if not intended to achieve regime change, ought to be actively reexamined — regardless of how politically contentious. The memories of hundreds of dead children wrapped in white sheets after Assad’s sarin attack should not fade in Western capitals.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, about the important role in preventing earlier humanitarian catastrophes played by leaders such as former NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark. "Clark consistently revealed a rare courage," Power wrote. "In addition to risking his life to save others, he also risked his career, by leading the fight to convince the Clinton Administration to use military force to prevent genocide in Kosovo. He understands that the United States has the power to change the world — and he understands the great responsibility that comes with this power. "

Back in the mid 1990s, as the Balkans convulsed in bloodshed and violence, the specter of a Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council did not prevent the United States from working with our allies to take action. There was a time when "never again" meant just that — and included an American resolve to back up its words with actions. In dealing with Syria today, we would do well to rediscover the courage once displayed by Gen. Clark and President Clinton. It is in everyone’s interest to do so.

<p> Oubai Shahbandar is the vice president for Middle East operations at the Syrian Support Group. </p>