The wider war in Syria

Par­tic­i­pa­tion by both the U.S. and Is­rael threat­ens to be­come in­evitable

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

With grow­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and 9 mil­lion refugees, Syria’s civil war has taken a turn for worse. Civil wars are prone to do that. Di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion of both the United States and Is­rael now ap­pears to have be­come all but in­evitable. This adds a new di­men­sion to what is of­ten seen as a par­al­lel to the Span­ish Civil War, 1936-39. That war, with Mus­solini and Hitler aid­ing the Na­tion­al­ist/Fas­cist side with weapons and ad­vis­ers and what would be­come the Al­lied pow­ers re­main­ing neu­tral, was a pre­lude to World War II.

When the U.S. Air Force shot down one of Bashar al-As­sad’s fighter planes the United States made the first di­rect in­ter­ven­tion in the war, where it has main­tained a de­fen­sive shield to pro­tect only Amer­i­can in­ter­ests. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has stu­diously avoided con­flict with ei­ther Rus­sia or Iran, which sup­ports the As­sad regime. Is­rael, a con­tigu­ous neigh­bor, has tried to re­main neu­tral, too.

But the Is­raelis re­cently re­turned ar­tillery fire across its north­ern Golan Heights border when ISIS bom­bard­ments strayed out­side Syria, al­beit with­out Is­raeli ca­su­al­ties. Both ISIS and Hezbol­lah ter­ror­ists, part of the strug­gle against the As­sad regime, are Is­rael’s blood en­e­mies, too.

Syria now be­comes a crit­i­cal test for the Trump for­eign pol­icy. A threat to in­ter­vene di­rectly, if Mr. As­sad or the Soviet and Ira­nian forces al­lied with him use chem­i­cal weapons against un­armed pop­u­la­tion, would be the ul­ti­mate test of Pres­i­dent Trump’s pol­icy of non­in­ter­ven­tion. Mr. Trump has made such non­in­ter­ven­tion ba­sic to his for­eign pol­icy of think­ing of “Amer­ica First.”

Chem­i­cal war­fare in Syria would put into con­sid­er­a­tion points of U.S. pol­icy. Adding chem­i­cal weapons to the chaotic con­flict would lead to a dra­matic in­crease in non­com­bat­ant vic­tims. The fight­ing for con­trol of the cities has al­ready in­flicted heavy ca­su­al­ties among women and chil­dren. The fight­ing of­ten in­cludes un­re­stricted bomb­ing by Soviet air­craft sup­port­ing the regime. Th­ese civil­ian ca­su­al­ties have made a dra­matic im­pact on both gov­ern­ment pol­icy and Amer­i­can public opin­ion.

Fur­ther, al­though Mr. Trump has en­dorsed the strat­egy of keep­ing op­tions secret to use am­bi­gu­ity as a tac­tic, the rest of the world sees op­po­si­tion to the spread of chem­i­cal weapons as a ba­sic Amer­i­can pol­icy in Syria. The world as­sumes, even af­ter Barack Obama drew his fa­mous “red line” against chem­i­cal weapons in Syria and then for­got about it, that Mr. Trump is made of sterner stuff. Only a few would be sur­prised to see the United States act.

Poi­son gas was used in World War I and the ef­fects were dev­as­tat­ing and long last­ing. By the end of the war, sci­en­tists work­ing for both sides had tested 3,000 dif­fer­ent chem­i­cals for use as weapons. Fifty of th­ese poi­sons ac­tu­ally made it to the bat­tle­field, in­clud­ing chlo­rine, which was used against Amer­i­can sol­diers. Hor­ror and fear of the weapons grew, even though gas in­flicted only 7 per­cent of the ca­su­al­ties and fewer than 1 per­cent of bat­tle­field deaths in that war to end war. Nev­er­the­less, even th­ese rel­a­tively small num­bers led to in­ter­na­tional treaties ban­ning chem­i­cal weapons in the years lead­ing up to World War II, be­gin­ning in 1939. Nei­ther Hitler nor the Ja­panese used chem­i­cal weapons even as their sit­u­a­tions grew ever more des­per­ate in the spring and sum­mer of 1945. Syria would break this taboo at con­sid­er­able peril to Mr. As­sad. If he sur­vived the chem­i­cal war he would doubt­less face trial as a war crim­i­nal.

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