Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama must act on Syria chemical weapons

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 5:44 AM EDT, Fri April 26, 2013
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
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT