Imagine you’re running a race. You line up at the start, and soon enough, you’re off. There are other runners around you: some slower, some faster. By all appearances, this race is just like any other race. But there’s one small, critical caveat: The finish line is invisible. You don't know where it is.
This is, in essence, the line of reasoning that the Obama administration has used to defer action in Syria.
Almost one year ago to the day, President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “red line” in eliciting a stronger American response to the conflict. According to this rhetoric, the recent surpassing of 100,000 Syrians dead as a result of the conflict does not “cross the line.” Furthermore, 1.7 million Syrian refugees, many of whom lack access to adequate food, shelter, and medical assistance, do not “cross the line.” Even though the U.S. government acknowledged that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons earlier this year, no reference to “crossing the line” has been made.
By alluding to a “red line” but refusing to place recent events in context around it, the Obama administration has rendered the “red line” invisible, thereby allowing the conflict to continue without taking increased measures to impede its progress.
Early Wednesday morning, unconfirmed reports began trickling in of Assad’s regime initiating the largest chemical weapons strike since Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds in the 1980s (specifically, the attack in Halabja in 1988). The estimated death toll has ranged from conservative estimates in the low hundreds up to approximately 1,200 dead in east Ghouta, the site of the attacks. If confirmed, these reports would constitute a definitive crossing of the “red line” that Obama defined a year ago.
As we speak, there is a UN investigation team located in Damascus, a few kilometers west of east Ghouta. The team was tasked with determining whether chemical weapons were used earlier this year, claims that the U.S. has already confirmed.
But this chemical weapons strike by Assad’s regime warrants an expansion of the UN investigation team’s mission. With all the resources in place for an investigation into the use of chemical weapons, as well as a separation of only a few mere miles, the UN investigation team has the resources available to determine the accuracy of this most recent, yet unprecedented, chemical weapons attack in Syria. The U.S., as well as other international actors, should attempt to mount pressure on Russia in an attempt to use Russia’s leverage with Assad to convince Assad to allow inspectors to investigate the locations of the chemical weapon use sites.
Unless reports are confirmed, the Obama administration can claim that the “red line” has not been crossed and that no further action is warranted with some degree of legitimacy. As such, it is imperative that the UN expand its investigation of chemical weapon usage in Syria to include an investigation of the reports of strikes in east Ghouta.
We, as members of the international community, cannot stand by and watch while the “red line” turns into an invisible line. We cannot let the invisible line serve as an excuse for inaction.