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Haunted by Syria?

President Obama is unmoved by the atrocities on his watch

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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At the end of 2013, that is the picture. The chemical weapons deal gave Assad license to continue killing by any means other than chemical weapons, and he is using it. A vicious bombardment of Aleppo began December 15 and continued day after day. Helicopters drop “barrel bombs” filled with explosives, nails, and other shrapnel designed to kill indiscriminately. “The medics say they are removing people in parts; they aren’t sure how many there are,” came the report from the Aleppo Media Center. “There was a big massacre today. We were treating shrapnel wounds, deep abdominal and brain injuries. I just lost count of the amputations,” a doctor told CNN two days before Christmas. Three days before New Year’s, a helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on a vegetable market, killing two dozen more people. The American strike that President Obama decided against at the last minute could have destroyed some of Assad’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, damaged their bases, degraded their ability to conduct such attacks, and given Assad a firm and credible warning to stop using airpower against civilian targets.

The Obama administration has a variety of excuses for its inaction. What can we do, after all? Would a jihadist victory be better than Assad? Small but growing elements of the foreign policy establishment are now echoing the line that we can’t after all allow al Qaeda to take over, so perhaps Assad is a necessary evil. But there were obvious things to do, and the administration should not now be allowed to escape condemnation for its feckless refusal to make choices. If today’s choices are worse than yesterday’s, or those available in 2012 and most of 2013, that is because Obama decided to do nothing. When I testified to the House Armed Services Committee in July 2013, I urged a onetime strike at Assad’s air assets and noted that Secretary Kerry was in favor of the same move: Cripple Assad’s small air force and you tilt the battlefield militarily, politically, and psychologically. Remember Kerry’s speech of August 30? 

Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate. The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders​—​the doctors, nurses, and medics who tried to save them​—​they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for air, terrified that their own lives were in danger. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people. .  .  .

[T]he primary question is really no longer, what do we know? The question is what are we​—​we collectively​—​what are we in the world going to do about it? As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most. Our choices then in history had great consequences, and our choice today has great consequences. .  .  .

[I]t matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk. And make no mistake. In an increasingly complicated world of sectarian and religious extremist violence, what we choose to do​—​or not do​—​matters in real ways to our own security. Some cite the risk of doing things. We need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing?

Great speech. Wrong president.

Today the war crimes continue, but poor Assad is restricted to using conventional weapons to murder Syrians. In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it is estimated that a total of 130,000 died. The war in Syria long ago passed that point, and the numbers continue to rise.

The American reaction is pathetic. Here is what the White House spokesman said in response to the murders and “barrel bombs” in Aleppo at year’s end:

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