Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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2012 and the Shame of American Policy in Syria

by Elliott Abrams
December 31, 2012


As the year ends, the news from Syria becomes worse and worse.

Today’s Washington Post reports that 400 people were killed in one single day on Saturday, December 29, and “About half of them were civilians slain in an alleged mass killing carried out by government troops at a petrochemical university in central Syria, opposition groups reported.”

And one of Israel’s leading newspaper web sites, YNET, reports that chemical weapons are being used by Assad’s army–breaking the taboo and the red line set by President Obama and just about every other government on earth:

Over the past few months the rebels have been reporting of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Initially the West doubted the credibility of these reports, assuming the rebels were trying to drag the West into a military operation by spreading false information. However, a few weeks ago Western intelligence sources learned that they have been wrong and that the rebels’ reports were accurate.

A close examination of footage and other material by experts in the West proved that the regime’s army has in fact been using paralyzing chemical agents for a few months now against the rebels and civilians who support them. These agents are not mustard gas, sarin nerve gas or VX, which are classified as chemical weapons, but they can definitely be considered toxic and harmful to humans.

For now, there have been less than 20 incidents in which Syrian army forces and the Shabiha militia have sprayed gas or a toxic liquid in rebel-held residential neighborhoods. Since the rebels did not display any bomb remnants, it is safe to assume that the gas was sprayed manually.

These gases do not necessarily cause death and are not as lethal as gases that are classified as chemical weapons. They also evaporate quickly and do not leave an odor, making them difficult to identify. However, they can cause a sense of asphyxiation, harm the airways and cause skin burns. The gases can be lethal if inhaled by people who not healthy.

The Assad regime is most likely using these chemicals to instill fear without risking an international response. The last incident in which toxic gas was used was in Homs a few days ago. Six people died.

So, not to worry: there have only been a dozen or so incidents, and this isn’t the kind of chemical weapon we really really won’t tolerate, just a down-market version.

In the course of 2012, the United States has become tolerant of mass murder in Syria, and now (if the Israeli report is right) even of the employment of some form of chemical weapon. No doubt we will soon hear that this was just a powerful form of tear gas, so you can relax.

But it was only a few years ago–2005–that the United States supported the “responsibility to protect” doctrine so that genocide would “never again” occur. And it is only this past May, 2012, that President Obama, in what Syrians must view as a cruel jest, appointed an “Atrocities Prevention Board.” The President spoke at the Holocaust Museum, and among his remarks were these:

And finally, “never again” is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth–too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.

One has to wonder if the White House is haunted these days by “the lives we did not save” in Syria. When one focuses again on what the President said last May, a conclusion emerges. At the Holocaust Museum, he said this about stopping mass murder:

Now we’re doing something more. We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities. So I created the first-ever White House position dedicated to this task. It’s why I created a new Atrocities Prevention Board, to bring together senior officials from across our government to focus on this critical mission. This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy. The board will convene for the first time today, at the White House….

Going forward, we’ll strengthen our tools across the board, and we’ll create new ones. The intelligence community will prepare, for example, the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the risk of mass atrocities and genocide. We’re going to institutionalize the focus on this issue. Across government, “alert channels” will ensure that information about unfolding crises–and dissenting opinions–quickly reach decision-makers, including me.

What is most striking about these words, today, is how bloodless and bureaucratic they are. In response to mass murder we will have a new board, and strengthened tools, and a new intelligence estimate and “alert channels.” We’ll also have “many tools–diplomatic and political, and economic and financial, and intelligence and law enforcement and our moral suasion,” the President said.

Tell it to the Syrians. In the end, all those “tools” were, like the speech and the visit to the Museum and the new Board, an alternative to action, a substitute for steps that might actually have stopped the killing at 10,000, or 20,000, or 30,000, or 40,000.

When the reckoning of the President’s two terms in office is done, four years from now, it is hard to believe there will be a more depressing and damaging item than this: he sat by while mass murder and the use of chemical weapons began in the Middle East. This position is actually popular now, all the polls suggest: the American people do not favor intervention in Syria. But of course one reason for those polls is the lack of presidential leadership; the numbers would change if the President explained why it was vital for us to act, and ways in which we could act that would not put American lives in danger.

So here’s a suggestion, one that reflects the death toll in Syria, and the 500,000 refugees, and the million or more displaced persons: let’s be honest and disband the “Atrocities Prevention Board” right now. That would save some time and money, and would reflect the actual foreign policy of the Obama administration.

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