By David Rohde
The images emerging from Syria — from this hysterical young girl to these rows of corpses — should be a turning point in a conflict that has killed 100,000. The deaths, if proven, demonstrate either the depravity of Bashar al-Assad — or the rebels fighting him.
But the Obama administration has spent so much time distancing itself and Americans from acting in Syria that a serious U.S. reaction to the apparent mass killing is politically impossible in Washington. And instead of learning its lesson — and respecting Syria's dead — the administration is repeating a pattern of making vacuous threats.
Hours after the images emerged, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on Twitter that the Syrian government "must allow the UN access to the attack site to investigate" and vowed that "those responsible will be held accountable."
Deputy White House Spokesman Josh Earnest called the use of chemical weapons, if proven, "completely unacceptable" and also said those responsible "will be held accountable."
Yet it was unclear how, exactly, the administration will hold anyone accountable. For the last two years, American military action has been off the table. And in a previously planned letter to Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, argued on Wednesday that American air strikes would not end the conflict and Syria's opposition remains too divided to run the country.
"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides," Dempsey wrote, "but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."
He said the American military "cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict." The chairman, in essence, was repeating the argument the White House has made for the last two years.
If a massive chemical attack is proven, however, this should be a watershed moment. The conflict is inflaming sectarian tensions across the region, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq. And American intelligence officials recently concluded that the al Qaeda-aligned militants gaining power in Syria are the single largest security threats that the United States faces.
Americans understandably want to avert their eyes from the region, with 1,000 dead in Egypt and car bombs regularly killing dozens in Iraq. But a mass chemical attack is chillingly different.
International law and human decency bars the use of chemical weapons. If proven, the attack in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta is the worst mass casualty chemical attack in decades. If there was ever a crossing of President Barack Obama's "red line," the attack, if proven, is it.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday that the West would have to react with force if evidence confirms a government attack.
"There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community," Fabius said, but he cautioned, "there is no question of sending troops on the ground."
Questions still surround what exactly happened Eastern Ghouta. Israeli officials said on the Thursday that their intelligence assessment was that a chemical attack had occurred but they did not know the perpetrators.
The timing here is odd. It occurred days after the arrival of a 20-member chemical weapons United Nations inspection team that the Syrian government had blocked from entering the country for months. And it unfolded a fifteen minute drive from where the U.N. team was staying. As Patrick Cockburn rightly noted in the Independent, both sides are also fighting a propaganda war.
The attack could represent different things. Assad could be defying a world that he is convinced will not respond. The images could be fake. Or rebels could have carried out the attack in a depraved attempt to spark an intervention.
In what has now become a predictable pattern, Syrian officials have denied any role and the Russian officials called the attack a "pre-planned provocation" by the rebels.
"All this looks like an attempt at all costs to create a pretext for demanding that the U.N. Security Council side with opponents of the regime," Aleksandr Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement. He called for a "professional and fair investigation."
Wednesday evening, American and European officials tried to get the U.N. Security Council to enact a resolution calling on Assad to allow the team to investigate the new attack. As Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch reported, Russian and Chinese leaders gutted it behind closed doors.
"The 15-nation council issued a milder statement that made no reference to today's alleged chemical weapons attack," Lynch wrote. "Instead, the council merely expressed ‘a strong concern' about ‘the allegations and the general sense there must be clarity on what happened.'"
With each passing hour, the Obama administration's promises of accountability appeared more and more empty.
In the days ahead, the White House will have limited control of whether or not U.N. inspectors get access to the site of the attacks. But it will have total control of its messaging.
If they do not plan to act in Syria, the Obama administration should stop vowing to hold the guilty accountable. If we will do nothing in Syria, let's say so from the start. That is more honest to Americans, Syrians and the dead.