More Chemical Attacks in Syria Highlight Costs of Inaction

The use of chemical weapons continues in Syria, as the international norm against their use crumbles through a lack of enforcement:

For the third time in just two weeks, chemical weapons were reportedly used against civilians in northern Syria. The United Nations is investigating the most recent case, which came Wednesday when barrel bombs thought to contain chlorine gas dropped on the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo, killing at least four people, including a mother and her two children, and wounding around 60 more.

Both the Assad regime and opposition forces have denied responsibility, but several witnesses and monitoring groups have said that helicopters dropped explosive barrel bombs on the affected neighborhood. Opposition forces, it bears noting, do not have helicopters….

Chlorine gas is classified as a choking agent, and when inhaled, fills the lungs with liquid and can lead to asphyxiation. Using it in a weapon is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Assad regime agreed to join after a 2013 UN investigation found that the nerve agent Sarin was used against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, killing 1,429 people, more than 400 of them children.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, meanwhile, has produced a new video on Aleppo, as it pushes for the protection of civilians from continued mass atrocities:

Over two years ago, in Time, I called Pope Francis’ handling of the war in Syria his “one big mistake.” Subsequent events have only reinforced my argument that the pope should have called on the international community to enforce the Responsibility to Protect. But the pope’s mistake pales in comparison to President Barack Obama’s, given the difference between moral and material leadership. Nicholas Kristof addresses Obama’s failure in his recent column on “Obama’s worst mistake”:

A crazed gunman’s attack on an Orlando club in June, killing 49 people, resulted in blanket news coverage and national trauma.

Now imagine that such a massacre unfolds more than five times a day, seven days a week, unceasingly for five years, totaling perhaps 470,000 deaths. That is Syria. Yet even as the Syrian and Russian governments commit war crimes, bombing hospitals and starving civilians, President Obama and the world seem to shrug.

I admire Obama for expanding health care and averting a nuclear crisis with Iran, but allowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy. It is also a stain on all of us, analogous to the indifference toward Jewish refugees in the 1930s, to the eyes averted from Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur in the 2000s.

This is a crisis that cries out for American leadership, and Obama hasn’t shown enough.

In fairness, Obama is right to be cautious about military involvement, and we don’t know whether the more assertive approaches favored by Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus and many others would have been more effective. But I think Obama and Americans in general are mistaken when they seem to suggest: It’s horrible what’s going on over there, but there’s just nothing we can do.

“There are many things we can be doing now,” James Cartwright, a retired four-star general who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me. “We can do many things to create security in selected areas, protect and stabilize those safe zones and allow them to rebuild their own country even as the conflict continues in other parts of the country.”…

One aim of such strategies is to increase the odds of a negotiated end to the war. Obama’s reticence has robbed Secretary of State John Kerry, who is valiantly trying to negotiate a lasting Syrian cease-fire, of leverage….

“Sitting idly by and allowing a government and its allies to systematically and deliberately bomb, torture and starve hundreds of thousands of people to death, that is not the solution,” Dr. Samer Attar, a surgeon from Chicago, told me. “Silence, apathy, indifference and inaction aren’t going to make it go away.”

Kristof also responded to critics online who argued Syria is complicated and the conflict has no easy, simple solution:

Thanks for your comments on my Syria column. Some of you disagree, noting–quite correctly–that Syria is complicated and risky with no perfect solution. That was also true of our options during the Bosnian, Rwandan, Darfur, Cambodian and Nazi genocides. But when you face mass atrocities like those unfolding in Syria, it’s no excuse to say, “it’s hard.” Cratering Syrian military runways with a missile strike from Turkey to make them inoperable might not work, but it might. Helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon get an education is rather easier, and we don’t do that either. The point is that every expert I consulted, military and civilian, agrees that there are steps we can take that will probably but not definitely help. If we continue to do nothing, hundreds of thousands more will die. Enough is enough.

We might expect libertarians to make such arguments—they oppose anti-poverty programs for the same reason they oppose action to protect civilians from mass atrocities. And, of course, it is easy to understand why pro-authoritarian Catholics and sectarian Christianists, who are rather indifferent to hundreds of thousands of Muslims being slaughtered, are pushing for inaction. But “it’s hard” or “it’s complicated” are weak excuses for those who believe the government can ensure everyone has access to affordable, quality healthcare or can end chronic homelessness, incredibly difficult, complex challenges. Perfection or nothing is a standard progressives (or anyone who believes in active government) would never embrace on these types of domestic issues. And they should reject that standard on foreign policy too. Syria is extraordinarily complex, but to believe that current and past policies have been optimal is to live in an alternate reality.