Syria is a test of U.S. commitmentOn Aug. 20, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime should not cross. A year and a day later, poison gas rained down from rockets on a rebel stronghold in Guta, near Damascus. Throngs of people were carried to hospitals showing symptoms of exposure to neurotoxic agents: convulsions, excess saliva, blurred vision and respiratory distress. An estimated 1,400 persons, including 400 children died almost immediately.
The United States, France, and a team from the United Nations claimed they had evidence that the Assad regime had unleashed a massive chemical attack against its own people to wipe out rebel opposition groups. The world’s eyes were fixed on the White House. Since the “red line” had been crossed, it was evident that the United States would try to muster support from its NATO allies and take military action against the Syrian government.
The United States beefed up its military presence in the Mediterranean with destroyers capable of launching Tomahawk missiles into Syria, amphibious warships and nuclear submarines. B-2 stealth bombers were readied to launch if given the order by the White House. A Western campaign to oust another Middle East regime appeared to be set.
But the countdown to war suddenly stopped after the British parliament voted on Aug. 29 against military intervention in Syria. The U.S. president received a setback with the loss of his strongest ally. After Germany and Italy also bowed out, only France and Turkey were on the side of the United States. More than 50 percent of the American public opposes military action against Syria. Americans have grown weary and disillusioned by the lengthy and costly U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Obama was forced to choose between unilateral action to punish the Assad regime for its massacre of its own people or a cancellation of the strike plan at the expense of losing all credibility on the global stage. At the crossroads, Obama thought of a third way: He asked the U.S. Congress to endorse a strike on Syria. The Syrian government immediately claimed victory, saying its strong will had triumphed over the United States.
Has Syria popped the champagne corks too soon? The answer lies in the U.S. Congress. Despite early pessimism, things began to look a bit brighter for the Obama administration when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday approved the government’s plan to strike Syria. The Republican speaker of the House and floor leader also supported Obama’s decision. The president still has a lot of arm-twisting to do, but he will probably get the congressional authorization he wants.
President Obama has been pleading for legislative and public support for a military campaign with the promise that the mission will be completed within 90 days - without the use of ground troops. The operation is expected to be limited to degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capability to deter future use of these weapons of mass destruction - toned down from an earlier plan to oust the Assad regime. Directly bombing the 20 or 30 warehouses storing chemical weapons would be out of the question for fear of releasing dangerous toxic agents that could devastate nearby civilians and the environment. The Syria operation also lacks a broader and lasting strategy to end the brutal civil war that has been going on for two and half years, with over 200,000 dead and more than 2 million made refugees. But for now, the U.S. president has no other choice.
A serious problem for us is that Obama’s too-discreet attitude has greatly undermined America’s long-standing reputation as a peacekeeper on the world stage. He has set a red line, but dragged his feet and lost momentum on immediate punitive actions by depending too much on public opinion at home and abroad. The post-war global order - especially the security of Asia and Europe - has been sustained by U.S. allies’ strong confidence in Washington’s commitment to their defense. That credibility has been put to a test by Syria. This has serious implications for South Korea, which relies heavily on the U.S. security commitment.
The Syria matter has a direct influence on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea has chemical stockpiles 2.5 times those of Syria. It is among four nations, including Syria, which have refused to join the 1992 United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention. Unlike nuclear warheads, chemical weapons can be fired from field artillery and rockets. North Korea has been supplying Syria with missiles and a production facility for chemical weapons. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, may be smiling at the U.S. president’s indecisiveness on Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that U.S. inaction could send the wrong message to Iran and North Korea, who have been pursuing nuclear weapons programs. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also reminded Congress that nuclear-armed North Korea threatens South Korea, where 28,000 U.S. military members are stationed. The secretaries are not exaggerating the danger merely to get support. In 1995, members of a Japanese cult group threw bombs of sarin gas into a Tokyo subway, instantly killing 13 and injuring 6,000.
Punishing a state or group for using chemical weapons is not just a political and military issue. It is also a commitment to morality and human values. If the U.S. stalls or stands down from taking strong action against inhumane crimes because of international and political hurdles, it would be an encouraging sign to future Assads. The Syrian problem, which has U.S. credibility on the line, demands our direct concern.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie