A red line for Syria – and for President Obama

The News TribuneApril 26, 2013 

What does “red line” mean? What does “game changer” mean?

Either Barack Obama or Syria’s Bashar Assad will come to regret those words. In the near future, we’ll find out which.

When the president of the United States issues a warning that dire, he’d best be ready to back up the words with action. Assad’s government appears to have crossed Obama’s portentous line by using chemical weapons against rebels – such is the assessment of Britain, France, Israel and now the U.S. secretaries of Defense and State. What next?

If the evidence of nerve gas attacks is established beyond a reasonable doubt, Obama must come through – somehow – on his unspecified threat.

A U.S. invasion of Syria cannot be an option; the Middle East is enough of a mess already without a herd of American elephants stomping into a conflict few people on this side of the planet understand.

We want to help the good guys win, but it’s hard to figure out exactly who they are. Assad is a brutal tyrant, but some of his enemies are friends of al-Qaida, which makes them enemies of ours.

One of the best reasons to tread cautiously is the possibility that sarin – which is 500 times more toxic than cyanide – might fall into the hands of people who rejoiced at the sight of mangled Americans at the Boston Marathon.

Assad shares one virtue with the old Soviet dictators: They may have hated the United States, but they were sane enough not to commit national suicide by attacking it directly. The Assad regime doesn’t like suicide either, and it has promised not to use poison gas against nuclear-armed Israel. In fact, Syria has avoided direct hostilities with Israel, working instead through such proxies as Hezbollah.

Syria’s management wouldn’t likely be as rational if U.S. intervention accidentally brought radical Islamists to power. Such Islamic extremists as al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas aren’t necessarily averse to suicide. They’ve got the explosive vests to prove it.

But Obama can’t just do nothing, now that the “game-changing” sarin has been used. A loathsome dictator in an explosive region cannot be allowed to call a president’s bluff. Outsourcing the problem to the United Nations – where Syrian ally Russia can veto any decisive action – does not count as action.

To preserve his credibility, Obama now must thread the needle: Boost the military power of the democratic Syrians without empowering the fanatics fighting alongside them, and hurt Assad’s regime without creating hostilities with Russia.

How to accomplish that has been the problem all along. Now Obama has crossed his own red line; he can’t duck the dilemma any longer.

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