By David Rohde
The harrowing 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 people. 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 is politically impossible in Washington. And instead of learning its lesson — and respecting Syria's dead — the White House is repeating its destructive pattern of issuing empty threats.
Hours after the images appeared, National Security Adviser Susan Rice demanded on Twitter that the Syrian government "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 in Syria. For the last two years, American military action has been off the table. And the White House's decision in June to give light weapons to the Syrian rebels is likely to have little immediate impact.
In a previously planned letter to Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, argued on Wednesday that 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."
Dempsey said American air strikes could destroy the Syrian air force and shift the balance of power in the country but it "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 inaction over the last two years.
If a massive chemical attack is proven, however, this should be a watershed moment. Clearly, there are no easy solutions to ending the conflict in Syria and American ground troops should not be deployed. But if the Syrian government is found to be responsible, the administration and its European allies should consider carrying out air strikes that would punish Assad's military. And if the Syrian opposition carried out an attack on its own people, all Western support to the rebels should end.
The conflict is growing worse, not better. It is inflaming sectarian tensions across the region and destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq. Earlier this month, CIA officials said that Syria's mix of al Qaeda-aligned militants and chemical weapons is the single largest security threat the United States faces.
Americans understandably want to avert their eyes from Syria and the Middle East, with 1,000 dead in Egypt and car bombs routinely killing dozens in Iraq. But a mass chemical attack is chillingly different.
International law and human decency bars the use of chemical weapons. If 500 to 1,300 people died as rebels allege, the killings in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta would be the worst chemical attack in thirty years. If there was ever an incident that crossed President Barack Obama's chemical weapons "red line," this it.
On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the West would have to respond militarily 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."
Enormous questions surround what happened. 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 is also odd. The deaths occurred three days after the arrival of a 20-member United Nations chemical weapons inspection team that the Syrian government had blocked for months. And it unfolded a mere 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.
Depending on who carried it out, the attack signifies vastly different things. Assad could be boldly defying a West that he is convinced will not respond. Rebels could have carried out the attack in a scurrilous attempt to spark an intervention. And the images, of course, could be fake.
In what has now become a predictable pattern, Syrian officials immediately denied any role in the deaths and 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," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Wednesday evening, American and European officials tried to get the U.N. Security Council to enact a resolution calling for an immediate investigation by the U.N. team. 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 Wednesday night. "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 vows of accountability appeared more and more meaningless. In the days ahead, the White House will have limited control of whether or not U.N. inspectors gain access to the site of the attacks. But it will have total control of its messaging.
If Obama does not plan to act militarily, his aides should stop vowing to hold the guilty accountable. If we plan to do nothing, let's stop making false promises. That is more honest to Americans, Syrians and Damascus' newest dead.
(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April.) (Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)