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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT