Last August, even as he resisted the notion of U.S. military intervention in Syria, President Obama said that "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." If new reports of the use of nerve gas to massacre hundreds of Syrian civilians are confirmed, Obama must make good on that warning to punish the government and protect its population.
People around the world have been horrified by online images of bodies shrouded in white sheets — victims, Syrian opposition groups claim, of an attack Wednesday by the government of President Bashar Assad in a suburb of Damascus. The government denies using chemical weapons, and Russia, Assad's enabler on the U.N. Security Council, predictably dismissed the claims of a nerve-agent attack as a "premeditated provocation."
The initial reaction of the United States has been to demand that U.N. weapons inspectors already in Syria be allowed to visit the scene of the alleged attack and gather information. The U.S. intelligence community is also looking into the allegations. Those are prudent first steps. But if the reports are confirmed by the U.N. inspectors or otherwise, this atrocity should be met with measured military action.
We say that even though we share Obama's aversion to military intervention in Syria, which would be a more complicated and dangerous proposition than the air campaign that led to the overthrow of Libya's Moammar Kadafi in 2011. The administration's caution has reflected not only an admirable reluctance to ensnare the United States in another foreign war but also a concern that the Syrian opposition remains too volatile and divided to be trusted.
The administration didn't abandon its essentially cautious policy even after it determined in June that the Assad government had used small amounts of the nerve agent sarin against its opponents. But if chemical weapons are now being used on a major scale against civilians, the U.S. must act — ideally in concert with other nations. On Thursday, France's foreign minister suggested that the international community should respond with "force" short of the deployment of troops if the allegations are confirmed. A no-fly zone coupled with airstrikes is an obvious option.
For almost a century there has been an international consensus that chemical weapons are beyond the pale because of their cruelty and potential for widespread loss of life. That understanding was reflected in Obama's comments about a "red line." The Syrian government must not be allowed to cross that line with impunity.