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The World at Home

Last update - Tuesday, October 1, 2013, 15:53 By Charles Laffiteau

Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture

While I’ve enjoyed recounting the litany of coincidences led up to our marriage, the pall of the Syrian civil war has also hung over Kinda and me throughout the course of our relationship. In fact, 15 March 2011, the day my wife visited and agreed to move into my flat, was the day the first Arab Spring protests erupted in major cities across Syria.

Neither Kinda nor I have ever believed that ratcheting up the violence in Syria would lead to a better outcome. So back in May, when I wrote that the US government would soon have to decide whether to remain on the sidelines or intervene on the side of the rebels, I did not express support for either proposal. While I still have mixed feelings about America becoming more deeply involved in this conflict, I no longer see any other way to avoid this.

However, even though the videos of Syrian children dying due to effects of apparent Sarin gas attacks turned my stomach, President Obama’s desire to retaliate for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is a separate issue, as far as I’m concerned. Granted, using chemical weapons may be reprehensible, but are they really worse than using cluster bombs that continue to kill and maim long after a conflict ends?

President Obama and some members of his staff probably wish he had never used the term ‘red line’ at his 20 August 2012 news conference in response to a reporter’s question about Syria’s chemical weapons. Although President Obama’s rejoinder that such an event would ‘change his equation’ falls well short of promising a military response to the use of chemical weapons, it was widely interpreted as a warning to Assad there would be a US military response if he ever used such weapons.

But instead of walking back from these remarks, President Obama and his advisors reinforced them by repeatedly telling members of Congress and the news media that “the use of chemical weapons, or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups, is a red line for the United States of America.”

Chemical weapons were apparently first used on 19 March in Aleppo and again on 29 April in Saraqib, as well as in a series of other relatively small scale attacks that killed around 100-150 people. Then on 5 August there was another attack launched against opposition forces in the eastern suburbs of Damascus that affected over 400 people. While there were some doubts about whether these attacks were perpetrated by the Assad regime or were false flag attacks by rebel forces trying to draw the US into the conflict, the events of 21 August put an end to the debate.

I, for one, have no doubt that the Assad regime was behind the 21 August nerve gas attacks on residents of the rebel controlled Ghouta suburbs of eastern Damascus that resulted in almost 1,700 casualties. UN inspectors not only determined that Sarin nerve gas was used, but also that it was delivered by rockets that only the Syrian government is known to possess. There is also a wealth of other data, including satellite photos of chemical weapon units’ movements and wiretapped communications, which point to the complicity of senior figures in Syria’s government.

But there is also anecdotal evidence that explains why senior Syrian officials decided to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians. On the heels of an unbroken string of successful Hezbollah-supported offensives during the first half of 2013, in July government forces had suffered several military setbacks near Damascus and in the government stronghold of Latakiya. Then on 8 August, rebel forces scared top officials when they attempted to assassinate Assad and other government officials by using rockets to attack his presidential motorcade.

Assad is also very beholden to Iran, which is using Syria as part of its proxy war for influence in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and its main western ally, the United States. So when Assad unleashed rockets containing Sarin on the unsuspecting residents of Ghouta, I contend that he was not only responding to internal pressure from his supporters to retaliate against the rebels, but also to external pressure from Iran to test America’s resolve. That’s why I believe he waited until 21 August, exactly one year after Obama’s ‘red line’ comments, to launch this attack.

Fear of a US missile attack is what prompted Assad to agree to put his chemical weapons under international control. But if he doesn’t follow through on this agreement, I argue that President Obama will have to launch some type of retaliatory strike. The US really has no other choice if it wants to counter Iran’s influence and maintain its own in the Middle East.


Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas who is pursuing a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011.

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