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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Syria: The (Non-Chemical) Killing Goes On

by Elliott Abrams
September 12, 2013

The emphasis on the need to stop the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is understandable. We all want to maintain the international taboo on their use.

But people killed by the Assad regime are no less dead if more traditional means of attack are used. Yesterday, Assad’s forces bombed a field hospital in the province of Aleppo. The vast majority of the 100,000 (or many more) Syrians killed have been killed by bullets and artillery. A “solution” that forces Assad to give up using chemical weapons but does not address the regime’s campaign against civilians–which has also left 2 million Syrians as refugees and millions more as displaced persons–is no solution at all. As Fred Hof (formerly the administration’s chief expert on Syria) wrote today,

As loathsome as they are as an instrument of war, chemical weapons in Syria are the tip of a deadly iceberg: a systematic campaign of regime terror that has driven 7 million Syrians from their homes (2 million to neighboring countries), killed well over 100 thousand civilians, and maimed and traumatized countless others.

Is it remotely possible that a president willing to justify the use of military force with the aid of images showing children murdered with chemicals is not similarly moved by innocents torn to pieces by mortar rounds, artillery shells, thermobaric bombs, cluster munitions, and barrel bombs? With all that has transpired over the past three weeks, is a return to business as usual for the Assad regime OK as long as chemicals are not used?

It seems to be possible, considering Obama policy over the last two years and the last few days.

2 Comments

  • Posted by Adam

    The carnage in Syria is not new; the world has turned its back on the issue for two years now. To claim that moral outrage is compelling Obama to step in to the arena now, is to miss the point. Obama is stepping in because the use of WMD by an arab dictator flies in the face of U.S. hegemony and credibility in the ME post 9/11. Remember Saddam? The Iran nuclear program? He has been forced to act or lose face in the region.

    The crisis in Syria has become an exhibition of U.S. impotence to the point where key U.S. allies, namely Israel, Jordan, Turkey and the Saudis are getting very concerned. To be sure, Iran is watching carefully.

    Unfortunately, U.S. policy is reactive and not proactive.

    Syria and Egypt have exhibited the Obama administrations desire not to be ‘winning power and influence’ in the ME but rather ‘standing at arms length’ and ‘keeping our nose clean.’

    This vagueness of policy harks back to Bush. The vague ‘War on terror’ is actually a war in the broadest sense on radical islam, mainly Sunni, but also Shia. It was never explicitly stated as such, for diplomatic reasons, but perhaps it was never thouroughly articulated in internal Washington discussions either. To be sure, it was never implemented fully, even Bush zig-zagged considerably in the ME. Today, Obama’s policy exhibits the same confusion but to a much higher degree and more obviously to all. It’s ok to kill jihadis in Yemen, but not ok to support el-Sisi or the FSA against islamic extremists. Confused? I am too.

    Bottom line: the U.S., using whatever means it chooses, needs to actively push for moderate, secular regimes in the region. Notice I didn’t say democratic or nation-building. These moderates are it’s only natural allies against the islamic radicals. These allies are feeling abandoned today.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwod

    The idea in many quarters that murder by chemical is worse than murder by bullet , explosion , evisceration , incineration or beheading is very curious . How many children have been murdered in Syria during the last two and a half years by “conventional” means ?