With the Syrian civil war intensifying, the United States faces a conundrum about what to do. There are no good options.
The situation is fraught with uncertainties. Bashar al-Assad surely should go, but who will fill the power vacuum is the worrisome question, particularly amid stark indications that Islamic extremists, including allies of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, are exerting significant influence.
We can be fairly certain that these Syrian rebels will not be a friendly force on the Israeli border, and the 40-year relative quiet that has existed there under two Assad regimes is much in doubt.
One of Israel’s greatest concerns is that Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons will fall in the hands of his Hezbollah allies or other terror groups. That is in part why Israel has taken a lead in calling attention to growing evidence that chemical substances have been used already in the two-year bloody conflict, which has reportedly claimed the lives of some 70,000 people.
President Barack Obama clearly erred in declaring last year that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would cross a “red line.” On Tuesday, he told a White House news conference that there is evidence those weapons were used, but “we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”
The fear, of course, is that an empty threat lobbed at Damascus will be read in Tehran as indication that the Obama administration is not serious about its stated policies.
But even Israeli officials are making clear there is a difference. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic and intelligence affairs, said that his government saw no comparison between U.S. policy toward Syria and its declared intention to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.
“We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria,” Steinitz was reported as saying at a New York conference sponsored by The Jerusalem Post. “And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.”
Iran and Syria are not comparable situations and, for now, despite the tragic humanitarian crisis gripping Syria, there is no justification for military involvement. The American public clearly has no stomach for it either. A CBS News/New York Times poll released on Tuesday found that 62 percent of those surveyed said we do not have a responsibility to intervene in Syria; 24 percent said we do. More importantly, without any sense of who would succeed Assad, it is far from clear what such intervention would accomplish.
Humanitarian aid should continue but that is as far as the United States should go for now.