As world leaders scurry about New York during this week's U.N. General Assembly, hyperventilating and bloviating over what to do about Syira, Bashar al-Assad is breathing easy. Though a deal seems imminent between Washington and Moscow for the language of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would force the Syrian government to dismantle its deadly chemical weapons stockpile, the Assad regime can bask in the knowledge that it won't face any punitive repercussions. Adding insult to injury, government forces have prevented basic supplies from reaching the Damascus suburbs that were hit by Assad's chemical weapons, resulting in the starvation of infants.
In light of Russia's continued delaying tactics and the Assad regime's brutality, the Obama administration must send a clear signal that the military option has not been taken off the table -- despite the disastrous reception it received from Congress.
Russia's adamant refusal to agree to a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which could allow for the use of force if the regime is found in noncompliance, highlights the effectiveness of Moscow's and Assad's strategy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the international diplomatic arena and Russia's U.N. veto to shield Syria from repercussions for what even Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has come to describe as Assad's "many crimes against humanity."
But while Putin has been the prime obstruction to American military action in Syria, he has also paved the way for Assad's war machine. The Syrian regime's Russian-manufactured battle tanks and Sukhoi air-to-ground attack aircraft, once hidden away when Western air strikes seemed imminent, are now once again relentlessly pounding towns and villages in liberated areas. Bombs are yet again being dropped on bakeries in rebel-held regions and residents in Damascus have noted the thunderous bombardments from Assad's batteries as they target the eastern Ghouta district -- the district hit in the horrific chemical attack of August 21.
Mass gassing has now been replaced by a systemic ghetto eradication campaign to close off, isolate, starve, and pummel the inhabitants of rebel neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Russians continue to buy Assad more time in New York.
The atrocities in Syria today may be on a smaller scale than the August chemical weapons attack, but the impunity with which the Assad regime continues its slaughter carries long-term security implications for the United States. In April last year, President Barack Obama rightly proclaimed outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington: "Awareness without action changes nothing ... 'never again' is a challenge to us all."
But "never again" without resolve merely invites future atrocities. And without a credible threat to his grip on power, Assad will merely continue his onslaught. As Ertharin Cousin, the World Food Program's executive director, noted: the situation in Syria will continue to "escalate and simply get worse." Another 1 million Syrian civilians are estimated to require humanitarian assistance by the end of next month.
The Syrian regime's success in so far sidestepping accountability for the chemical weapons attack is also a strategic victory for Iran. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' division responsible for special operations outside Iran, has now been dispatched to oversee Assad's campaign. Meanwhile, the number of Iranian special forces and Hezbollah militiamen in Syria continues to grow. Assad relies on Iran and Hezbollah to secure his most sensitive weapons systems. To make matters worse, senior Syrian military defectors from the chemical weapons program have warned that Assad is preparing to move his chemical stockpiles to Hezbollah, if necessary, for safekeeping.
If Assad's punishment is not commensurate with his gross violation of international norms, Iran will surely note how hollow deterrence has become against the rogue use of weapons of mass destruction. The case for intervention, therefore, is not only based on moral considerations -- it is based on strategic ones as well.