President Barack Obama boxed himself into a corner a year ago when he said the use of chemical warfare in the Syrian conflict would be a “red line” that would require a strong response. Now that time has come.
While the administration has sought mightily, and understandably, to stay out of another foreign, messy and no-win conflict, the stakes have grown considerably of late in the Mideast. The list of those killed in the Syrian civil war over the last two and a half years is well over 100,000, mostly civilians, and now it appears clear that President Bashar Assad has employed chemical weapons in killing hundreds of men, women and children, almost as if he is testing whether Obama will back up his rhetoric with a military move.
This week the United States was paving the diplomatic way for such a response, most likely a limited attack on Syria, not only to prove its resolve but to send a message to Iran, Syria’s protector. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observed on Sunday, “now the whole world is watching. Iran is watching, and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons.” The international community is watching as well to see if the U.S. president associated with leading from behind is prepared to step up militarily.
This is not about asserting a macho stance; it’s about establishing a strategic position that doesn’t weaken the U.S. or its vital Mideast ally, Israel, while seeking to limit the bloodshed in the region.
Most likely the U.S. attack will be more symbolic than lasting. Israel, which shares a border with Syria and is under threat from Iran, cannot afford the luxury of symbolic actions. It must not only talk tough, but also must be prepared to act. As Netanyahu noted, “our finger must always be on the pulse. Ours is a responsible finger,” but if necessary it will be “on the trigger.”