When Red Lines Become Gray

Last week the White House said the U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons “on a small scale” against rebels in Syria.

Such information places the president in a bind. Last August, Mr. Obama emphatically declared that if Assad used chemical weapons, a “red line” would have been crossed, that it was a “game changer” that would trigger a U.S. response. For now, the president can still hedge, at minimal cost to his credibility. He can sit on his hands and still not do much, based on the claim that he’s still not 100-percent certain that chemical weapons have been used.

But the president’s wiggle room will probably run out soon. British and French intelligence agencies have asserted that sarin, a poisonous gas, has been used by Assad’s forces. Israel’s intelligence services said they reached the same conclusion. In all likelihood, incontrovertible proof will soon emerge that Assad’s army has used chemical weapons, crossing the red line set by the president. What should the president do? Should he intervene militarily against the Assad regime?

While using chemical weapons is an outrage, a heinous war crime and a dangerous escalation, we suggest that the president should seriously consider whether deploying U.S. forces against Assad will only create greater instability and a more rabidly anti-Western government.

Backtracking from a strong position against chemical weapons will certainly make a dent in the credibility of the president and the U.S. Although chemical weapons are a game changer, the president has to make it clear that since the Syrian civil war broke out, it’s also become evident that the “game” has changed dramatically, as well. As more information emerges about the composition of the rebel forces, it becomes more evident that the rebels are not a band of freedom fighters looking to spread democracy, tolerance and liberty to Syria.

Certainly, presidents in the past have supported movements that didn’t exactly promulgate Lockean democratic principles. Roosevelt provided massive support to Stalin; Eisenhower to the Shah of Iran — and these are just two examples.

But reports coming out of Syria indicate that much of the ranks of the rebels are filled with al-Qaida affiliates or Moslem extremists. In testimony to Congress on Thursday, James R. Clapper Jr., Director of National Intelligence, said that Jabhat al Nusra, a group that swore allegiance to al-Qaida, operates in 13 of the 14 Syrian provinces. If Assad falls, the risk is that extremists will rule Syria, leading to more instability not only there, but in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey.

Therefore, we cannot agree with those senators who are pushing for more arms to flow to the rebels. Supplying sophisticated arms to Islamic extremists is something we have witnessed before; it doesn’t have a good ending. In Afghanistan, to harass the Russians, the CIA supplied advanced weaponry to the Mujahideen. They, in turn, grew into the present-day Taliban and al-Qaida.

Pressure is increasing on the White House to deploy troops within Syria in order to contain Assad’s chemical arsenal. The Department of Defense estimates that it would take tens of thousands of troops to secure the chemical weapons. Unfortunately, even when American troops are in a peacekeeping role, they become targets of terrorists and extremists. Tragically, more Americans lost their lives in Iraq trying to keep the peace among the sectarian factions in Iraq than fighting against Saddam Hussein’s forces. American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu while on a humanitarian mission to prevent starvation in Somalia. And, more recently, an American ambassador was slain in Libya, even though the U.S. supported the overthrow of the vicious madman Gadhafi. Apparently, in many middle-eastern countries, the sight of an American flag goads terrorists to raise the banner of Jihad. In the case of Syria, American troops would be entering a war zone and facing hostile forces on both sides of the conflict.

If military intervention is necessary to contain the chemical weapons, it should be comprised of a multinational force.

It is crucial that we learn the lessons of the past, and beware of blindly supporting a movement that’s alarmingly starting to resemble the very noxious regime it’s trying to replace. There can be no doubt that Assad is a vicious tyrant who should have long ago been deposed, but turning Syria into a base for al-Qaida isn’t a better alternative. Until a viable Syrian resistance that isn’t affiliated with terror groups emerges, we respectfully recommend that the administration adopt a cautious and careful approach.