The White House has confirmed in a letter to several US Senators that chemical weapons have been used in Syria and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Abu Dhabi that the Assad regime has used sarin gas on its own people “on a small scale“. This confirmation comes as no surprise to anyone who has been watching the deteriorating situation in Syria closely over the last two years. A cable from US diplomats in Turkey claimed months ago that Assad has used chemical weapons and the British, French, Qataris and Israelis have all argued the same repeatedly.
What exactly does this mean and what moral difference does it make whether Assad has used gas to kill hundreds of civilians or whether he is shooting or killing them in another way? The truth is it doesn’t really matter in practice. Assad has so far killed over 70,000 men, women and children, hundreds more are dying each day (last week exceeding the number of 500 on a single day), which constitutes a faster kill rate than in the atrocious Bosnian civil war in the 1990s.
However, President Obama has decided last August that “seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” would be a “red line” for him that mustn’t be crossed. Indeed he called it a complete “game-changer” last Friday. Obama said in March this year that the US “will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists”, and promised to Assad: “the world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”
Regardless of the seeming steeliness of Obama’s threat to Assad, we haven’t so far seen any sign of progress towards a more active stance of the US in the Syrian conflict. In fact, right now Obama’s administration seems to be more hesitant than ever to intervene in Syria. White House Officials are explicitly mentioning the “bad experiences” in recent history in the letter to the US Senators, a clear reference to Iraq, and they express Obama’s wish to gather “hard” evidence before making any move. Therefore, they want to initiate a UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Despite legitimate scepticism and desire to learn from past experiences, one must not “overlearn” the lessons of Iraq. It seems as if Obama has long lost his faith in America being a force for “good” in the world after Iraq and Afghanistan, but to truly believe this is a fatal fallacy. Syria is not only a serious security issue for the Middle East and the US, but a pressing matter of life and death.
We have watched this massacre for two long years and there is simply no time to continue to deal with the Syrian conflict as if it was a Trivial Pursuit game in which our main goal is to be 100% sure that we have impeccable answers before we make the next move. Does it really matter when, where and how many chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime? People are dying en masse anyways while we are arguing about the absolute reliability of blood samples and videos.
Reality doesn’t wait until you gained complete certainty and Obama was elected as US President, not as lawyer who gathers “fool-proof evidence” in a court case. It’s quite simple: If you don’t want to take on risk and carry responsibility, then you are unfit to be a global leader. A leader makes difficult decisions even in situations of doubt. A global leader takes action and doesn’t follow behind the pace of events in this modern world. Above all, a true leader stands by his words, even if he stands alone.
The clock is ticking and time is running out for Obama to find the courage to do the right thing and keep his promises: engage in Syria, save thousands of lives and bring mass murderer Assad to justice.