Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama must act on Syria chemical weapons

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
April 26, 2013 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Obama administration confirmed Syria regime used chemical weapons
  • Ghitis: This crosses Obama's "red line;" will he act? Possible to do so without U.S. forces
  • She says arming rebels with values similar to U.S. one option; another is no-fly zones
  • Ghitis: Not acting would legitimize use of chemical weapons, upend U.S. authority

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- The Obama administration has confirmed what we have been hearing for months, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria by the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad.

The news, revealed in a White House letter to Congress, presents President Obama with a stark question. Will the United States become directly involved in the two-year-old Syrian civil war?

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Last August, Obama issued a stern warning to Assad. If he used chemical weapons, Obama said, even if he moved them in preparation for use, he would cross a "red line" that would have "enormous consequences." Before that, Obama had already declared that the regime would be "held accountable" if it made the "tragic mistake of using those weapons," a warning he repeated last month during a trip to the Middle East.

Obama has now come up against his own words and the stakes are enormous. The United States has a range of options, including several that do not include sending American forces into Syria.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



One path is to provide more muscular support to certain rebel units. The administration has been reluctant to arm the rebels because Islamist radicals, including some closely affiliated with al Qaeda, have become an important part of the anti-Assad forces. This is problematic, since Washington has called for an end to the Assad regime, a regime that, incidentally, is closely allied with Iran and Hezbollah.

But it is possible to discern the members whose ideology is relatively consistent with U.S. values and policies. Those fighters should receive carefully selected weaponry to raise their effectiveness against Assad and increase their appeal within the opposition.

In addition to helping arm them, the United States should look into the possibility of creating safe havens, no-fly zones, where the opposition and civilians might be protected by NATO from Syrian air attacks. There is also the option of destroying Assad's most dangerous weapons stocks through aerial bombardment. Although, depending on the target, bombing could carry the risk of spreading the contents, and in the end, the United States may need to remove the stockpiles by designating allies to enter the facilities that hold them. Any action should be taken, to the extent possible, under the NATO umbrella.

The one course of action Washington cannot afford is to ignore its own warnings and the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions.

King Abdullah to meet Obama on Syria
Amanpour investigates chemical weapons
What is sarin gas?
McCain: Syria's crossed the line

Doing so would legitimize the use of chemical weapons, letting regimes that hold power by force know that they can use the world's most reviled weaponry to preserve their rule from internal challenges. Failure to act could hasten a grave escalation in a war that has put the entire Middle East on a knife's edge. It would threaten to spread its destructiveness beyond Syrian borders and raise the incentive for other militias to start using chemical agents, potentially fueling a market among terrorist groups everywhere.

And it would make the dire warnings of an American president ring hollow, with damaging consequences for global stability, not to mention for American security. Among those watching, Iran would certainly draw its own conclusions if the United States ignores its own red line.

Until now, the Obama administration has resisted pressure to take a tougher stance against Assad if only to stem the killing. More than 70,000 Syrians have already died and millions have fled the fighting. Refugee pressures are building in neighboring states, and the conflict has already drawn fighters from other countries; among others, Hezbollah militias from Lebanon, which have joined the war on Assad's side.

For almost two years the president opted to limit U.S. involvement, reportedly rejecting proposals from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA chief David Petraeus to arm carefully selected segments of the opposition. At the same time, America has provided generous help for refugee care, along with nonlethal aid to the rebels.

The use of chemical weapons, however, is a game changer. The beleaguered Assad has admitted possessing an enormous chemical arsenal. Syria holds stockpiles that experts say include Sarin, VX and mustard gas. Production facilities and warehouses for them are spread throughout the country. Regional analysts believe that Assad has thousands of rockets filled with nerve agents ready for use with the Syrian army's vast missile systems.

U.S. officials say there's much they don't know yet about how the weapons have been used. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Thursday that within the last 24 hours U.S. intelligence officials concluded the Syrian government forces used a small amount of an agent, probably Sarin.

The use of those "uncontrollable, deadly weapons," Hagel said, "violates every convention of warfare."

Charges that Assad's forces used chemical weapons surfaced months ago, but it was a March 19 attack in Aleppo that drew global attention. In the face of mounting evidence of people with respiratory distress, burns and other signs of unconventional weapons use in a battle zone, the rebels accused Assad and Assad accused the rebels of using chemical agents. The Syrian government called for a U.N. probe, but then refused to allow the investigation.

More recently, France, the United Kingdom and Israel have said they have found evidence of chemical weapons use. On Wednesday, Israel's head of military intelligence said Israel has gathered evidence, including photographs of areas with people with mouths foaming following an attack. He said he believes Assad has used the weapons several times, including on March 19.

It is likely that Assad is testing international reaction by using limited amounts of banned weapons. If reaction does not follow, he will probably use them more extensively.

The United States has deployed a few hundred troops to Jordan, just south of Syria, with the purpose of aiding refugee care and, according to a Los Angeles Times report, as "the vanguard of a potential military force of 20,000 or more" in case the United States decides to move to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

The United States and the world have many options on the table, none of them risk free. But the riskiest of all would be delaying a meaningful and forceful response.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT