The news reports that chemical weapons have been used in an attack in Syria remain just that – news reports – because of the ambiguity that is swirling around the incident.
A decade ago, the United States launched a war against Iraq and at the time, people spoke about the “constructive chaos” that was supposedly favored by the Bush administration. Back then, the Americans blundered into Iraq and made decisions off the cuff, with a flagrant level of disregard for the consequences, as if they thought that chaos would eventually produce something good.
These days, the Obama administration has swung in the exact opposite direction, as it practices its form of “constructive ambiguity.” American officials are busy denying that the rebels carried out the attack, as Damascus alleges. However, they are also casting doubt on whether a chemical attack took place, as the world is treated to the latest verbal parsing on Syria. One should be prepared to start hearing about different types of chemical weapons, as in the “real kind” versus some other, less deadly kind.
So far, the White House and the Pentagon are investigating the issue, while also making it plain that the regime is the only party that possesses such an arsenal. In fact, Damascus has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, and the recent charges and countercharges must be verified, one way or another.
The Syrian regime began by using, among other things, machine guns against protesters, and the level of violence steadily rose, moving through the use of mortar bombs, tank shelling, helicopters and aircraft, and finally Scuds. But over the last two years, the West has talked about chemical weapons being the red line. The countries that have issued such warnings in the past must do their utmost to arrive at the truth of what took place, and they can certainly rely on their own intelligence and other capabilities to render a sound judgment, based on evidence.
The international community should be on notice that if chemical weapons have been used, it faces a momentous decision on what to do next. Naturally, the details of who, what and where should be spelled out explicitly, before any escalation takes place. Policymakers in Washington and elsewhere should know that the instant analysis has already entered the equation, as people hear about scenarios such as the regime being cornered militarily and conducting the alleged attack as a trial balloon, to gauge the level of international response.
Clearly, the chemical weapons issue is not something that can be swept under the rug, whether for reasons having to do with Syria. Even if Syria has suffered tremendous levels of destruction already, the use of chemical weapons will move the conflict into an entirely new and even more lethal stage, meaning that a stance of ambiguity today is the wrong policy at the wrong time.