Syrious Conundrum

Jewish Light Editorial

The choices for the United States regarding Syrian intervention are hardly enviable, but the political pressure cooker seems ready to explode.

It has now been all but definitively confirmed that the lethal chemical weapon of sarin gas has been used on at least three occasions in the bloody civil war raging in Syria — a conflict that has cost 70,000 lives and created 1.2 million refugees.

The most recent U.S. Intelligence Estimate, based on research by multiple American agencies,  concludes with “varying degrees of confidence” that the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has used gas on at least three occasions, including in the cities of Aleppo and Homs, “on a small  scale.”

Similar conclusions have been reached by intelligence agencies in Great Britain, France and Israel.  President Barack Obama said last summer that if Syria used chemical weapons, it would be crossing a “red line” that could prompt the United States to intervene. Last week, at a White House news conference after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Obama took note of the findings of the intelligence community, and reiterated his “red line” statement, but cautioned that more evidence is needed to make the case against Syria “air tight.”

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Critics of the White House approach, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, accused the administration of using delaying tactics by referring the matter to the United Nations for an investigation. Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, late last week also said that “the red line has been crossed.” Naturally the regime of Bashar Assad has denied the claims it used sarin and blamed opposition forces for using the agents.

Initial press reports from Israel indicated that officials there were worried that if the United States refused to act after having made an explicit threat, it would embolden the theocratic regime in Iran to ignore U.S. and other demands that it stop its quest to develop nuclear weapons. More recently, Ethan Bonner reports in Monday’s New York Times that Israel is now saying it is not seeking U.S. intervention in Syria despite the chemical arms use reports.

Bonner quotes Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international  relations as saying, “We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria.” Steinitz made the remark at a conference in New York sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. “And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter,” Steinitz added.

McCain, in an appearance Sunday on the CBS talk show “Face the Nation,” also appeared to walk back from his initial hawkish stance by emphasizing that he is not suggesting that an American response should include any “boots on the ground.”

These latest developments have placed the Obama administration in a very delicate bind. A failure to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons even if definitively proven could indeed be interpreted not only by Iran but by such rogue regimes as North Korea that explicit threats from the United States can be ignored with impunity.  

On the other hand, if the United States acts unilaterally to intervene militarily in Syria, it could find itself bogged down in another intractable conflict in the Middlle East even as it ends it bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, as reported this week, it appears that rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, are aligned with Al Qaeda, so even the common “enemy of my enemy” justification for funding or arming the opposition could prove an unthinkable nightmare in this instance.

The most prudent course of action would be for the United States to work in concert with its NATO allies and with the support of the Arab League to establish no-fly and no-drive zones to protect moderate elements of the Syrian opposition and to stop or  sharply curtail the deaths and flow of refugees into neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.  There are estimates that the number of Syrian refugees could reach a staggering total of 3 million if the conflict is not at least contained.

An interesting sidebar story has been all but ignored by most mainstream media. Israel has set up a field hospital to care for the wounded among Syrian refugees, and some of them are being treated at Israeli hospitals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This uniquely Israeli response to the unfolding tragedy in Syria deserves the attention and respect of the entire world.

We hope that the United States and its allies will promptly find a responsible and firm way to respond to the latest disturbing reports out of war-torn Syria. Silence and inaction are not options.