Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, currently traveling in the Middle East, has confirmed British, French, and Israeli government reports that the Assad regime in Syria has likely used a sarin nerve agent against opposition forces. In letters to Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), the Obama administration said that while U.S. intelligence agencies “cannot confirm how the [sarin] exposure occurred and under what conditions,” the United States “does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.” This would mark the first use of chemical weapons since the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993—signed by all but six member states, one of which was Syria—and the first use by a state since Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and nerve agents against Iran and his own people in the 1980s.
At the same time, Syria’s civil war continues. More than 70,000 Syrians have died in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that began in March 2011, and 1.3 million have fled their homes and country. Neither the Assad regime nor a fractured and disorganized opposition are capable of defeating one another on the battlefield, and no political settlement is on the horizon. Syria itself appears to be heading toward a de facto partition between areas held by the Assad regime and those held by various rebel groups.
Together, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and the regional strain of the refugee crisis call for additional actions from the United States, its regional partners and allies, and the international community as a whole.
American strategy so far has aimed at using tools short of direct and overt U.S. intervention to bring an end to the Assad regime. These tools have ranged from international diplomacy to create a framework to end the conflict, to attempts to unify the opposition, to current efforts to train rebel fighters in cooperation with regional allies. Given these new realities, however, additional steps are now required.
Three steps the United States can take going forward to lead the response to these concerns
Demand an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the Assad regime’s likely chemical-weapons use
The United States should take the lead calling for in such a meeting and force Russia into active diplomacy that prevents it from serving as a shield for the Assad regime’s unacceptable behavior. A U.N. investigation team has been idling in Cyprus for more than a month now, barred from entering the country by the Assad regime. Russia has tacitly backed the Assad regime on this score, accusing “certain states” rather than the regime itself of disrupting the inspection. Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already played the Iraq WMD card, saying reports of Assad regime chemical-weapons use are “an attempt to politicize the issue” and create an “Iraqi scenario.” Nonetheless, Russia has called for immediate investigation “on the spot” of these reports.
The United States should call an emergency Security Council session and hold Russia to these words. The Obama administration’s considerable caution on alleging the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime will prove useful in this endeavor, as they show the United States is more than eager to make sure it has the facts straight before taking action. The U.N. inspectors waiting in Cyprus should be given access to the samples and other data used by the United States and others in their assessments of Syrian chemical-weapons use, but diplomatic efforts in the Security Council should focus on ensuring these inspectors are given immediate and unconditional access to provide an independent assessment to validate existing reports of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use.
Engage NATO and regional partners in planning the U.S. response
The Obama administration should involve NATO and regional partners in planning its response to the Assad regime’s crossing of President Obama’s red line on chemical-weapons use. Action will require precision planning, definitive American leadership and direction, and the participation of a broad alliance ready to preclude any further Assad regime chemical-weapons use by destroying appropriate military targets, including delivery systems, logistics, and applicable command and control.
Confirmed use of Syrian chemical weapons against their own people will require a necessary and decisive response from the United States and its allies. CAP recommended last December that the United States and NATO should prepare a response to Assad regime chemical-weapons use, and such planning should be accelerated if already in motion. Regional partners that are already affected by the civil war in Syria should also be consulted and included in this planning. Any plans the Obama administration makes to punish the Assad regime for chemical-weapons use should be made on a multilateral basis. Violating international laws and norms on the use of chemical weapons is a matter of grave concern to all states.
Nonetheless, the United States and its partners should avoid entangling itself in Syria’s civil war to the extent that doing so is possible. The actions of the regime and Islamist rebels are producing increasingly sectarian overtones to Syria’s violence. In particular, the interplay between the Assad regime and Sunni Islamist rebels has heightened the sectarian nature of the conflict, as each group leverages sectarian claims to win support. Alawites, a minority Muslim sect to which President Assad belongs, have become increasingly implicated as regime supporters, while the presence of Sunni Islamists among the rebels lends credence to the Assad regime’s black-and-white rhetoric among Alawites, Christians, and other sectarian minorities. Punishing the Assad regime for its likely chemical-weapons use should not entail more involvement in the increasingly complex Syrian civil war than is necessary.
Request that NATO and other allies begin planning for a major multinational refugee relief mission in Jordan
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, is running out of money with which to assist Syrian refugees, receiving only a third of the $494 million it sought in the first six months of 2013, and Jordanian society and Syrian refugees are starting to show the strains of a situation without an end in sight.
Such a major multinational relief mission would necessarily involve the military capabilities of NATO members, such as airlift, ground transportation, medical assistance, and basic security. It could also significantly relieve the strains Jordan faces in coping with a growing Syrian refugee population. Relevant Jordanian civil and military officials and institutions should be included in this planning at appropriate stages. In particular, planning should endeavor to incorporate current Jordanian efforts to ensure that the relationship between NATO and Jordanian national efforts is as seamless as possible should these plans be implemented. Similar studies should be undertaken with regard to Lebanon, though that country’s ever-complicated domestic political situation and the potential spillover of fighting from Syria make it less amenable to a large-scale NATO-led relief mission than Jordan.
There are no good policy options in Syria, and the reports of likely chemical-weapons use by the Assad regime only reinforce this conclusion. The military stalemate has not yet produced incentives for a political settlement for either the intransigent Assad regime or the fractured opposition. The worsening humanitarian situation is destabilizing a key U.S. ally in Jordan and a fragile Lebanon, while the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, when validated, crosses a red line that President Obama has repeatedly drawn.
The United States can take important steps forward by further solidifying and accelerating NATO planning on these issues, as well as making an all-out diplomatic effort in the U.N. Security Council to investigate reports of Assad regime chemical-weapons use.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center.