There is little doubt now that President Obama is planning some kind of military response to what the administration says without equivocation was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government that killed hundreds of civilians. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry began forcefully making the case for action.
Speaking at the State Department, Mr. Kerry said the attack “defies any code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He said this “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders” was a “moral obscenity,” ‘’inexcusable,” and “undeniable,” despite efforts by President Bashar al-Assad and his enablers in Russia to blame rebel forces.
“Make no mistake,” Mr. Kerry added, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” Administration officials said Mr. Obama had still not made a firm decision on how to react, but it would be highly unlikely — if not irresponsible — for him to authorize Mr. Kerry to speak in such sweeping terms and then do nothing.
Mr. Obama put his credibility on the line when he declared last August that Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that would compel an American response. After the first attacks, earlier this year, killed between 100 and 150 people, the administration promised weapons for the rebels but delayed in delivering them.
This time the use of chemicals was more brazen and the casualties were much greater, suggesting that Mr. Assad did not take Mr. Obama seriously. Presidents should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through. Many countries (including Iran, which Mr. Obama has often said won’t be permitted to have a nuclear weapon) will be watching.
Using chemical arms is considered a war crime and banned under international treaties, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Protocol and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Even so, if he decides to use military force, Mr. Obama will have to show that he has exhausted diplomatic options and present a defensible legal justification, and that is not a simple matter. Ideally, the United States would muster a United Nations Security Council resolution to authorize military action. But Russia and China, which have veto power, have long protected Mr. Assad from punishment there and show no inclination to change. It is hard to believe that they would defend his use of chemical weapons, but there is no guarantee that they would not.
Mr. Obama may instead bypass the U.N. and, as in the case of the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo, assemble an ad hoc international coalition to support military action that would provide legitimacy, if not strict legal justification, for intervening to protect Syrian civilians. American officials are discussing the possibility that states like Turkey and Jordan may make a collective self-defense argument because they could be victims of Syrian chemical weapons.
If Mr. Obama does forgo the U.N., he will need strong endorsements from the Arab League and the European Union, and more countries than just Turkey, Britain and France should join the effort. And if he does proceed with military action, it should be carefully targeted at Syrian air assets and military units involved in chemical weapons use. This, too, will not be easy, but the aim is to punish Mr. Assad for slaughtering his people with chemical arms, not to be drawn into another civil war.
A political agreement is still the best solution to this deadly conflict, and every effort must be made to find one. President Obama has resisted demands that he intervene militarily and in force. Though Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons surely requires a response of some kind, the arguments against deep American involvement remain as compelling as ever.