April 30, 2013 | New York Daily News

America’s Inexcusable Inaction

In Syria, we are letting Assad slaughter at will
April 30, 2013 | New York Daily News

America’s Inexcusable Inaction

In Syria, we are letting Assad slaughter at will

Twenty-five years ago last month, the small, northern Iraqi town of Halabja became irrevocably associated with places like Auschwitz, Srebrenica and other sites of human depravity. Located in Kurdistan, Halabja was the target of a devastating poison gas attack by the regime of Saddam Hussein in March of 1988. Attempting to put down a rebellion against his dictatorial rule, Hussein killed some 5,000 Kurdish civilians in a single day by deploying a toxic mix of mustard, XV, and sarin gas from planes. It was one of the worst crimes committed by the Hussein regime in its genocidal “Anfal” campaign against the Kurdish people.

I visited Halabja several years ago, and the impression one gets visiting that sacred ground is similar to the one felt at any site commemorating mass killing, genocide or other varieties of injustice: We must, as a matter of basic human decency, do a better job preventing such atrocities from ever happening again.

Halabja comes to mind with the news, revealed last week by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad used the exact same type of chemical weapon employed by Saddam — sarin gas — on civilians. In a letter to congressional leaders, the White House admitted that intelligence agencies hold this view, “with varying degrees of confidence.” (Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein characterized the assessment differently, saying that officials, based upon soil samples and blood drawn from victims, believe with “medium to high” confidence that sarin had been used).

More than 70,000 corpses into Syria's two-year-old civil war, the news that chemical weapons have been used — in admittedly “small” amounts — might seem like an arbitrary reason to raise alarm. But the utilization of poison gas on a civilian population is relevant for both legal and moral reasons. Not only are their use patently illegal according to the Biological Weapons Convention (which, in a sign of the inability of international treaties to prevent malicious men from doing what they please, Syria signed more than four decades ago); in a world that bore witness to the Holocaust, there is something unspeakably evil about using gas to murder civilians.

Last week's disclosure is also relevant because the American President said it would be. We still live in a world shaped by American power and influence, and people hang on every word the President speaks. So, in January, when President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” in shaping Washington's heretofore ambivalent response to the rebellion, people listened.

Obama was only reiterating what he had said last summer, which is that the deployment of chemical weapons would be a “red line” mandating American intervention. Assad, having ignored every single American, European and United Nations admonition to stop murdering his own people and step down, heard these protests and, like an over-confident poker player, raised his interlocutors by doing exactly what he was told not to do.

The announcement of Syrian use of chemical weapons comes almost exactly a year after the President unveiled the creation of an “Atrocities Prevention Board,” a bureaucratic edifice dedicated to “preventing mass atrocities and genocide.” It's worth asking, now that Assad is arguably engaged in genocide and using chemical weapons to implement his crimes against humanity, just what the point was of creating this body.

“America's reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide,” concluded a White House fact sheet. Taking the administration at its word, is there any other conclusion to be drawn from the President's own statements and actions over the past two years that America has been “idle in the face of mass atrocities?”

Doing nothing as Assad taunts us by explicitly crossing the presidentially-drawn “red line” has consequences that reach far beyond the mess in Syria. It demonstrates that the word of the President of the United States, the leader of the free world, is worthless. Security guarantees that we have with nations spanning the globe will no longer be worth the paper on which they're written. Stern warnings to Iran (that it must not develop a nuclear weapon), to China (that it not invade Taiwan) or North Korea (that it never send its troops across the Demilitarized Zone) will be taken with a grain of salt by our adversaries. Bluffing invites aggression.

Commemorating the Halabja attack on its website last month, the BBC referred to the gassing as “the most notorious act of chemical warfare in modern times.” If President Obama continues his current Syria policy, Halabja will lose this ignominious distinction in the annals of history.

Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @jkirchick.

Read in New York Daily News