When Bashar was master of Syria, such behavior was seen as an annoyance rather than a threat to U.S. national security interests. Today, all that has changed. The Assad regime is mired in a grinding conflict with the Syrian opposition, in which it is steadily losing control, as the July 18 bombing in the heart of Damascus shows. Furthermore, a number of massacres by Alawite forces in Sunni villages around the cities of Homs and Hama indicate that Alawites and the regime they dominate may be attempting to clear Sunni villages in order to set up a rump Alawite enclave in their historic homeland along the Syrian coast in the event of regime collapse.
The international community therefore faces a dilemma: Should chemical and biological materials be put at the disposal of those running an Alawite rump regime, and those directing the shabbiha "armed gangs" roaming the Syrian countryside, there is much greater likelihood of atrocities or genocide. And it's not only the pro-Assad groups the United States must worry about: As the Syrian regime loses its grip on power, the roughly 45 different CBW facilities and tons of chemical weapons materials that U.S. officials estimate are scattered throughout the country could fall into the hands of Sunni extremists. These groups not only don't share America's long-term interests in Syria, but increasingly resent Washington for standing by and doing little while Syrians are slaughtered. This sentiment is unlikely to improve if Washington and its allies simply watch and hope for the best while the Assad regime moves around its chemical weapons stockpile.
The time to act is now, before disaster strikes. By leading an effort at the U.N. Security Council to warn the Syrian regime about the dire consequences of using its chemical weapons stockpile, and raising the possibility of a military response in the event that effort fails, Washington will be communicating to Assad that he would be sealing his fate if he crosses this last remaining red line.
Until now, giving Assad the benefit of the doubt has only led to more deaths and an increasingly evident U.S. failure to stop the carnage in Syria. The Obama administration has drawn a red line at mass atrocities in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. It should do the same in Syria.