The following editorial, excerpted here, appears on Bloomberg View:
It may take awhile to determine whether Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons to slaughter more than 1,000 of his citizens. If he has, this brazen atrocity not only changes the U.S. calculus in the region but also requires a clear response from the civilized world.
Words and resolutions would not do for a massacre of this scale. Ideally the U.N. Security Council would sanction limited international military action to punish and deter Assad. If not, the U.S. should assemble the broadest possible international coalition to deliver a message, with force if necessary, to the regime.
The immediate priority is to get U.N. inspectors, already in Damascus to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use, to the site. Getting access for inspectors may be difficult. The U.S. and its allies should try to persuade Assads backers, especially Russia, to apply pressure. President Vladimir Putin surely wouldnt want to be stuck defending this atrocity and may need to be pressured publicly to cooperate. In addition, the Security Council should be aware that chemical weapons use on this scale would set a precedent that no one would want to endorse by default.
The reality remains, though, that the United States and its allies may have to make their own determinations of what weapons were used.
In a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel written before the Ghouta attack, Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, set out the reasons for the Obama administrations reluctance to intervene in Syria. If the U.S. is to back a party in the conflict, that party must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor, he wrote. Today, they are not.
Dempsey and the White House are right not to want to own another conflict in the Middle East. Yet failure to react also has repercussions, in Syria and beyond. Why should Iran, or indeed Egypts new military rulers, take U.S. commitments and red lines at face value? In addition, Syria looks set for years of continued civil war in which each side is supplied by regional backers, and spillover to Syrias neighbors is inevitable. It cant be in U.S. interests for this war to include chemical weapons.
Nor do Dempseys justified concerns about the nature of Syrias opposition preclude action. The U.S. should accompany any response to a proven use of chemical weapons by Assad with a clear statement of its policy goal in Syria: not to topple the regime or ensure victory for part or all of the opposition, but to force the main parties to a cease-fire.
If the claims against Assad prove true and Russia vetoes action by the U.N., the U.S. and its allies will need to present a defensible legal justification for acting outside the Security Council. Thats not impossible. Working with allies such as Jordan and Turkey that have been affected by attacks and incursions from Syria, the U.S. could build a consensus for action.
As Dempseys letter makes clear, the administration has chosen a noninterventionist policy in Syria. Almost exactly one year ago, President Obama said that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.
The recent allegations, when figured into that calculus, may soon demand a more forceful response. Whether it is cruise missiles against Syrias air force or another military option, it is a response the president and the rest of the world should be prepared to deliver.