What Happened to the Red Line?

Many of the photos emerging Wednesday from Syria, depicting the victims of devastating toxic gas attack by the Assad regime in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, were so traumatizing that our editorial staff deemed them too gory for usage in a family newspaper.

Our seasoned photo editor, who has seen more than his share of tragic pictures over the years, was shaken to the core after viewing these images.

What precisely took place is being disputed and the truth may never be known. The Assad regime is unsurprisingly denying the notion that chemicals were used, and their ever loyal ally Russia is backing them up.

There were differing reports about the number of casualties — ranging anywhere from 100 to 1,300.

But if — as appears now — these reports are true and the tale apparently being told by these photographs is accurate, the world can no longer afford to remain silent.

A year ago — on August 20, 2102 — President Barack Obama made an unscheduled appearance in the White House briefing room and took a few questions from the assembled reporters. One query was about Syria, and whether the president envisioned using the U.S. military to ensure the safekeeping of the chemical weapons in that country.

“I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation.  But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical,” Obama replied.

“That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, 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. That would change my equation,” he added.

In response to a follow-up question, Obama reiterated his stance:

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

After long months of procrastination, the White House acknowledged in June it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces, prompting a U.S. decision to begin arming rebel groups, although that has not happened yet.

Now it appears that this “red line,” has been crossed again in a most ferocious way, yet the White House reaction was deeply disappointing.

As it has repeatedly done in the past, it deplored the attack and called for U.N. investigators in Syria, probing previous reported incidents of the usage of chemical weapons, to have full access to the site of the latest attack.

George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, a key opposition group, blamed the regime, as well as “the weakness of the U.N. and American hesitation” for the deaths. “The silence of our friends is killing us,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s attack effectively ended any chance for peace negotiations with the regime.

Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.

The U.S. reluctance to intervene militarily is fully understandable.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the administration is opposed to even limited action in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn’t support American interests if they seized power.

Dempsey said the U.S. military is clearly capable of taking out Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the war toward the armed opposition. But such an approach would plunge the U.S. into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become a sectarian fight, he said.

Obama recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people more than eight months ago, and Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly expressed support for Salim Idris, the rebel military chief.

However, the more than 50 distinct rebel groups fighting to end the Assad family’s four-decade dynasty range wildly in political beliefs and not all are interested in Western support.

As the conflict has dragged on, al-Qaida-linked rebels and other terrorist groups have been responsible for some of the same types of massacres and ethnic attacks that the Assad government is accused of.

But it has long been crystal clear that verbal condemnations — no matter how sharp or vocal — will do nothing to stop the Assad regime from using WMDs on its own people or on other nations.

A creative middle ground must be found that will allow the United States to destroy  Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons while not bolstering the terror groups that comprise part of the opposition.

America can’t remain indifferent to heartwrenching scenes of infants and toddlers dying terrible deaths. Nor can it afford to ignore the precedent being created by allowing any regime to freely use WMDs, especially a regime that shares a disputed border with Israel.