Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama’s Red Line in Syria: A Case for Intervention

Territorial Control Map

The rapidly escalating conflict in Syria is raising the collective volume of voices asking, “What can and should President Obama do in Syria?” The reality is that Syria’s future is inextricably tied to the future stability of the entire MENA region. Today, I turn to Cassie Chesley, Chair of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria Public Relations Committee & Media Coordinator for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, to explain why ignoring President Obama’s red line will give a green light to a worsening humanitarian and security crisis in the region and beyond. **

Through every step of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime has tested the international community by slowly but consistently escalating the nature and degree of its attacks against the Syrian people. There is a clear pattern that has surpassed the ubiquitous snipers and checkpoints, first with the introduction of helicopter gunships, then cluster munitions, then SCUD missiles, and now we see the beginning of what every Syrian knows will become widespread use of chemical weapons.

 On April 25, Secretary of Defense Hagel publicly confirmed that the chemical weapon (CW) sarin gas was used in Syria, which should have triggered U.S. action in Syria.  As the Obama administration begins to consider military action in Syria including arming vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a no-fly zone, and limited military strikes, it is crucial to outline the options and why a clear, timely response to the Assad regime’s use of CW is important. The United States must send a clear, strong message, or a dangerous precedent will be set for the Assad regime and for other “red lines” in the region and beyond. If the United States hesitates, we will see an escalation in widespread use of CW, before a consensus is reached.

The opposition does not seek intervention in Syria that requires American ground troops. The Syrian government has already lost territorial control of 60 percent of the country (see map). Selectively arming vetted elements of the opposition through FSA commander Gen. Salim Idris and the Supreme Military Council, and the creation of a no-fly zone, will both aid the FSA in protecting this territorial control, and protect countless civilians in the liberated areas. A no-fly zone could be achieved as carried out in Libya, or by extension of the Patriot Missiles in Turkey to cover Syrian soil.

An immediate and effective response to Assad’s CW use would be a series of strikes against strategic military sites, not near civilian populations, that house airplanes and missiles, which can even be carried out by unmanned drones. The destruction of missiles capable of carrying chemical weapons would inhibit the regime’s ability to carry out attacks against the civilian population, while signaling to the world that CW use is unacceptable. Additionally, while confirmation of CW is in progress, the United States and others should provide medical equipment, such as Atropine (antidote for sarin/nerve gas), for those experiencing CW symptoms, and equipment to protect against exposure.  Relief organizations, such as the Syrian American Medical Society, are treating patients exhibiting symptoms consistent with sarin gas exposure and providing their tissue and blood samples to U.S. government agencies.

The United States must act for moral and national security reasons. As in Rwanda, some are parsing words to excuse inaction.  In 1994, the Clinton administration abstained from intervention through a legal loophole, terming the incident an “act of genocide” rather than “genocide,” which would have required international intervention. Failure on the part of the Obama administration to take an immediate stand against the use of CW is a green light for the Assad regime to escalate their use of CW while sending a similar message to Iran.

As the Assad regime has done with conventional weapons, it will escalate to widespread CW attacks if the U.S. does not take strong action now. The use of tactical CW attacks is consistent with the Assad regime’s strategy. The escalation is clear – airstrikes, SCUD missiles, and now small-scale CW attacks.  The United States must act now and launch a series of strategic strikes against the Assad regime’s military operations, or else risk further escalation of the conflict and setting a dangerous precedent. Secretary Kerry said “we need to change the calculations of Bashar Al Assad,” and the only means of achieving this is to take serious action now showing Assad and his inner circle that they cannot act with impunity.

Intervention alone does not provide a full solution to the many problems facing Syria.  We must acknowledge that the country is in dire need of the utmost international pressure to enter into a negotiated transfer of power, so that its people, with robust international support, can proceed to the difficult tasks of rebuilding and reconciliation that lies ahead.  Intervention is needed now to save lives and accelerate the process. —Cassie Chesley

  • Daniel Hochmuth

    It would surely be a good way out of the mess if a “clean” airstrike was possible (as had been the case in Libya). However, there are reasons to believe that military action would by no means be quick or clean in the case of Syria – first of all, Assad’s army is better equipped and also battle-hardened after two years of fighting. It doesn’t lack the anti-aircraft weaponry as the Libyan army did. Also, there is a question of intelligence. Conducting a precise airstrike or drone strike requires a very good knowledge of the enemy location, movements, etc. Otherwise there’s a high risk of civilian casualties – and the US is already under enough pressure to stop using drones at all.

    Nevertheless, if the use of sarin by Assad’s forces is proven beyond doubt (which hasn’t been the case yet, as far as I know), Obama will have to act. Clearly, he’s not too eager to engage militarily in Syria. But doing nothing would be, in my opinion, even worse.

    • jim kubik

      Assad’s army is weakened and has a very low moral. After all they have been slaughtering children with knives for 2 years now. Hoped up on drugs,alcohol,and blind sectarian orders to kill,rape,pillage,and destroy whole areas. Besides half of Assad’s army are interventionists from Lebanon,Iraq,Iran,Hez.,Belo-Russia,N. Korea. Talk about intervention and suppling of arms??? Where the fuck did all the munitions come from Russia and Iran. No matter Assad will join the dust bin of disgarded despot’s. Daniel a NFZ protected by Patriots in the North of Syria would suffice. Over time most of the N. has been liberated. This conflict for Assad is moving west to build an enclave for his final fight. That is why he is engaging in ethnic cleansing of those areas. As far as civilian casualties..Look up Banias(Banyas) that is what faces Syrian Sunni RIGHT NOW! Obama is a coward of convenience; He will act only if it serves his image.

      • mossy

        Well said Jim.

  • Doug H.

    Of course, the Chair of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria Public Relations Committee would say that, wouldn’t she? There is no evidence of CW use; the only people claiming that there has been are subjective and hawkish groups and individuals like Cassie Chesley. This whole revolution is being done by Sunni terrorists who are armed and funded by the US. How about we help contain that before the next bomb goes off in America courtesy of jihadists?

    • Jim Kubik

      BS Doug H. I know hundreds of Syrians and see the slaughter a few hours after it happens. This Regime led by Assad is committing genocide as we speak. Put that into your non-interventionist/conspiracy pipe. You want to turn a blind eye because of US mistakes in the past; yet it was a huge mistake in not getting a NFZ early. Assad has stirred the hatred and played the game of division well. Assad has set this whole charade up with the aid of Russia, Iran ,Iraq, HEz. “Bashar the rapist” If I can’t rape you; then no one will…So he Scuds,Artillery strikes,car bombs,war plane attacks, death squads. In March alone 6000 people were killed from this onslaught over the power of a seat?!

    • SamNS

      Doug H., you are repeating the lies and propaganda of the dictatorial Assad regime. What is going on in Syria is a long over due revolution against a brutal dictatorial regime that is controlled by a family from the Alawite sect that is using religion to govern by dividing the Syrians and using favoritism for the minorities and antagonizing them against the majority Sunnis, and that abnormal situation has been for over 40 years, and the majority of the Syrians have revolted to demand justice and freedom from oppression. There are different groups in the opposition, secular and religious, mostly moderate and some with more extreme views. On the other hand the regime relies on extremists from Hizbollah and Iran who have no problem with the killing of unarmed civilians, including women and children, based on their religion. None of the opposition group has ever reciprocated to those crimes with the same, even after the regime has killed over 100,000 and more have been incarcerated and tortured to death. The US needs to start supporting the opposition with real weapons and help put an end to this tragedy in Syria. It is not enough to rely on the limited support coming from Qatar and the Saudis, because with the unlimited support coming from Iran and Russia, the killing and destruction might go on for much longer and the Syrians will have little choice but to join Jihadist groups who are better financed by individuals from the Gulf states, and that will destabilize the region in the long run..


Calvin Dark
Calvin Dark

Calvin Dark is an international policy and strategic communications professional based in Washington, DC. For more than 10 years, he has advised US and international bodies and organizations, primarily focusing on political, economic and cultural relations with Latin America, Western Europe and the Middle East and North Africa. Calvin is also a social media enthusiast trying to connect the world one tweet, post and #hashtag at a time.

Calvin was a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco where he conducted research on civil society’s role in increasing transparency and public confidence in Morocco’s government institutions and services. Calvin received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and French from Duke University and has studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Paris, France. He speaks French, Spanish, Arabic and English (North Carolina’s special dialect.)

Calvin is also passionate about Southern storytelling and oral histories and is the author of Tales From My Dark Side [], a collection of stories about the Darks, a central North Carolina family and their unique ways of reconciling the complex notions of race, community and family.

Anything else? Oh yea, he loves to spin and is a spin instructor.

Contact Calvin at [email protected]