The news that U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the regime of Bashar al-Assad “very likely” used chemical weapons “on a small scale” in Syria, along with recent Israeli strikes against select targets in that country, has been met with an all-or-nothing debate over potential U.S. policy responses. On the one side, advocates of intervention such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Michael O’Hanlon, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, have used these recent developments to argue for open-ended, large-scale U.S. military intervention in Syria’s stalemated civil war. The debate between these noisy interventionists and skeptics such as political commentator and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who appear primarily interested in countering interventionist claims and rhetoric, has obscured the possibility of an American policy response that is proportional to the transgressions of the Assad regime. But the national debate over what the United States should do in regard to Syria’s civil war and its chemical-weapons arsenal should not be framed as a false, all-or-nothing choice between large-scale military intervention and doing nothing.
The most common calls of those favoring intervention remain constant: arming Syrian opposition forces, imposing a no-fly zone over the country, or using ground troops to carve out safe zones inside Syrian territory to protect civilians. These options would likely have only a marginal impact on addressing the issue at hand—the regime’s likely chemical-weapons use. The United States has already reportedly trained rebels on securing chemical-weapons sites and stockpiles, and equipping the fractured rebel movement with antiaircraft and antitank missiles is unlikely to make much of an impact on the ground against regime forces. In any event, a rebel victory appears unlikely to be as swift as necessary to preclude further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime—with or without arms supplies from the United States and Europe.
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