A strike directed straight at the Syrian dictator and his family is the only military option that could hasten the end of the civil war.
Maybe this strikes some readers as bloody-minded. But I don't see how a president who ran for his second term boasting about how he "got" Osama bin Laden—one bullet to the head and another to the heart—has any grounds to quarrel with the concept.
As it is, a strike directed straight at the Syrian dictator and his family is the only military option that will not run afoul of the only red line Mr. Obama is adamant about: not getting drawn into a protracted Syrian conflict. And it is the one option that has a chance to pay strategic dividends from what will inevitably be a symbolic action.
Let's examine some of the alternatives.
One option is to target the Syrian army's stores of chemical weapons, estimated at over 1,000 tons. Last week the Times of Israel reported that "the embattled [Assad] regime has concentrated its vast stocks of chemical weapons in just two or three locations . . . under the control of Syrian Air Force Intelligence." If that's right, there's a chance some large portion of Assad's stockpile could be wiped out of existence using "agent-defeat" bombs that first shred chemical storage containers in a rain of metal darts, and then incinerate the chemicals with white phosphorus, preventing them from going airborne.
Still, it's unlikely that airstrikes could destroy all of the regime's chemical stores, which are probably now being moved in anticipation of a strike, and which could always be replenished by Bashar's friends in North Korea and Iran. More to the point, a strike on chemical weapons stocks, while salutary in its own right, does little to hurt the men who ordered their use. Nor does it seriously damage the regime's ability to continue waging war against its own people, if only by conventional means.
Nor is it clear, morally speaking, why the grunts doing the Assad family's bidding should be first in the line of American fire. In the spring of 2005 I was briefly detained by a Republican Guard unit when I stumbled into their encampment on the Lebanese border. The soldiers looked poor, dirty and thin. I felt sorry for them then. I still do.
Then there is the "Desert Fox" option—Bill Clinton's scattershot, three-day bombing campaign of Iraq in December 1998, on the eve of his impeachment. The operation hit 97 targets in an effort to "degrade" Iraq's WMD stockpiles and make a political statement. But it did nothing to damage Saddam's regime and even increased international sympathy for him. Reprising that feckless exercise in "doing something" is the worst thing the U.S. could do in Syria. Sadly, it's probably what we'll wind up doing.
And so to the Kill Assad option. On Monday John Kerry spoke with remarkable passion about the "moral obscenity" of using chemical weapons, and about the need to enforce "accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people." Amen, Mr. Secretary, especially considering that you used to be Bashar's best friend in Washington.
But now those words must be made to mean something, lest they become a piece of that other moral obscenity: the West's hitherto bland indifference to Syria's suffering. Condemnation can no longer suffice. It recalls the international reaction to Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, captured by the magazine Punch:
"We don't want you to fight/but by jingo if you do/We will probably issue a joint memorandum/Suggesting a mild disapproval of you." Mussolini went on to conquer the country—using chemical weapons.
The world can ill-afford a reprise of the 1930s, when the barbarians were given free rein by a West that had lost its will to enforce global order. Yes, a Tomahawk aimed at Assad could miss, just as the missiles aimed at Saddam did. But there's also a chance it could hit and hasten the end of the civil war. And there's both a moral and deterrent value in putting Bashar and Maher on the same list that once contained the names of bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.
There will be other occasions to consider the narrow question of Syria's future. What's at stake now is the future of civilization, and whether the word still has any meaning.
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