August 27, 2013 | The New York Times

Assad Has Called Obama’s Bluff

The Middle East challenges and dissipates power quickly. We’re seeing that now in Syria.

President Obama drew a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The dictator Bashar al-Assad, sensing Obama’s determination to avoid further military conflict, has crossed that line, for the obvious tactical reason that such arms are ideal in a terror war against a civilian population in revolt. Weapons of mass destruction are the great equalizers: for Syria’s minority Alawite Shi’ite dictatorship, they are an essential tool to break the stalemate against the much more numerous Sunni opposition.

America’s credibility in the region — which is overwhelmingly built on Washington’s willingness to use force — will be zero unless Obama militarily intercedes now to knock down the Assad regime. Firing cruise missiles or even more punishing strikes from fighter-bombers against Syria’s chemical-weapons depots and plants will be as effective in countering Assad’s lethal calculations, and his capacity to deploy further weapons of mass destruction, as was President Bill Clinton’s cruise-missile barrage against Osama bin Laden after the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998.

If the president intends to maintain American influence, which means maintaining a credible threat to go to war to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, then Washington’s response to Assad’s challenge must be devastating. The entire regime must be targeted: elite military units, aircraft, armor and artillery; all weapons-depots; the myriad organizations of the secret police; the ruling elite’s residences; and other critical Alawite infrastructure.

President Obama may not believe that Middle Eastern conflicts are a proper test of his or America’s mettle; that sentiment is irrelevant now. He put the country’s reputation on the line in Syria. The president has said many times that he doesn’t bluff. Assad, with Tehran and Moscow behind him, has called his hand. The choice now is either war or headlong retreat. The president should ask for Congress’s assent, and go to war.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the C.I.A., is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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