Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Syria's chemical weapons threat demands a response

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Free Syrian Army soldiers rip a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey on Sunday.
Free Syrian Army soldiers rip a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Syria's regime has issued an unprecedented threat to use chemical weapons
  • Previously, Syria had always denied it owned any chemical or biological weapons, she says
  • The U.S. has focused on diplomatic approaches to dealing with Syria, says Ghitis
  • Ghitis: The U.S. and its allies should push to help Syrians remove al-Assad from power

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- The tragic news from Syria managed to become even more shocking Monday when the regime issued an unprecedented threat to use chemical and biological weapons. The warning, which came couched in deceptively reassuring language, makes it clearer than ever that the world cannot afford to act merely as an interested spectator as Syria unravels in a tangle of shrapnel and blood.

Syria had always denied that it owned any chemical or biological weapons. But the denial ended this week when Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi issued his peculiarly veiled threat.

"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used," Makdissi said before flashing the thunderbolt of an exception: "Unless Syria is exposed to external aggression." The weapons, he said, acknowledging their existence for the first time, are under supervision of the Syrian armed forces.

Syria says it has weapons of mass destruction in case of foreign attack

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long described the uprising against his rule as a terrorist revolt and a "foreign conspiracy." Makdissi himself promptly described the opposition as the work of foreign extremists, conceivably synonymous with the "external aggression" that would qualify for chemical attack under these new rules of engagement.

The U.S. has placed most of its efforts on diplomacy, even while al-Assad's forces have killed more than 15,000 protesters. Diplomacy has gone nowhere, but the fighting continues unabated, and the humanitarian catastrophe escalates.

As with every other uprising in the Arab world, with the exception of Libya, Washington has tried to play delicately, seeking a nuanced approach that keeps it from taking center stage in the conflict, speaking out from the sidelines and gently moving events along.

Assault on Aleppo
Syria threatens to use chemical weapons
'Street of death' before, ghost town now
House after house trashed in Syrian city

If anyone needed more information about the stakes and the urgency in this conflict, the latest threat provides it.

American combat forces should stay out of the conflict, for now, unless Syria unleashes chemical weapons directly or indirectly. But the U.S. should play a much more active role helping overthrow al-Assad.

It's time for Washington and its allies to throw their support more forcefully behind elements of the opposition whose ideas most closely match the West's views on democracy, equality and rule of law.

Opinion: Preparing for Bashar al-Assad's exit

Many have rightly worried about who makes up the opposition. There is no question that elements of al Qaeda and other religious extremists are fighting with the rebels. But the opposition also includes members whose views more closely align with the ideals of democratic pluralism that are consistent with America's. Syria is a diverse country, with large Christian, Druze and Kurdish minorities.

America can stand back and hope for the best, or it can move forward and start financing and providing substantial intelligence and logistical support to the opposition members who, to the best of Washington's knowledge, might uphold the right values once in power.

There are no guarantees, but members of the opposition who have more resources become stronger inside their movement. America could help fortify ideological moderates by helping them in their fight.

As we have just seen in Libya, moderate forces can benefit from the influence they acquire when they enlist foreign support.

This is not to deny that extremists could end up gaining power in Syria. But that only makes it more important to help steer the conflict towards the best possible outcome.

As al-Assad's grip loosens, what could come next?

Consider the alternatives.

Al-Assad could survive, or the civil war could grind on for years. It now looks as if al-Assad is losing ground, but other regimes have survived strong uprisings. If al-Assad's rule survives, it will mark a defeat for the Syrian people, for America's friends in Lebanon and for U.S. allies throughout the region. It would constitute a major victory for tyranny, a triumph for Iran and for Hezbollah.

A victory for al-Assad would fortify and embolden the forces in the Middle East that oppose peace between Israelis and Palestinians, those who despise the U.S. and the West, the enemies of secularism, of equality for women and of ethnic and religious tolerance. This is a war for dominance over the region, not just for one regime's survival.

Al-Assad, despite his English education and modern tailored suits, has aligned himself with and actively supported the worst most anti-democratic, retrograde forces in the region. For decades, his friends have sowed terror around the world. Syria helped transfer thousands of Iranian missiles to Hezbollah, a disruptive anti-Western, rejectionist organization whose manifesto declares "Our struggle will end only when this entity (Israel) is obliterated."

Israel is already deeply worried about al-Assad handing chemical weapons to Hezbollah, which has 50,000 conventionally armed missiles aimed at Israel and managed to fire 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilian targets in the 2006 war.

The possibility that the fighting could spread throughout the region is frighteningly easy to envision.

Iran, al-Assad's closest ally, has been held responsible for masterminding terrorist bombings as far away as Argentina. Its current defense minister, along with the former president and former foreign minister, in fact, are targets of an Interpol arrest warrant for one of those attacks. And we're not even mentioning the nuclear issue, which exponentially increases the stakes.

Faces of the Free Syrian Army

Now that al-Assad's regime has introduced the option that major mass-casualty weapons could enter the conflict, it has eliminated any doubts about the need to bring an end to the al-Assad family's brutal rule. It has also highlighted the importance of helping establish a responsible government in its aftermath.

According to the independent Federation of American Scientists, "Syria has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapons programs in the world and may also possess offensive biological weapons." Its arsenal contains nerve agents, cyanide, mustard gas and other weapons, along with the capability to fire them with Scud missiles, anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.

When U.S. intelligence analysts saw military activity around Syria's chemical stockpile sites, Washington warned al-Assad that using them would "cross a serious red line." It's time now for more clarity.

After Syria warned that Damascus might resort to chemical weapons, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the threat "monstrous," and British Foreign Secretary William Hague called it "unacceptable." The European Union declared itself "seriously concerned." President Barack Obama said it would be a "tragic mistake" to use the weapons.

There's no need for subtlety. Al-Assad should hear that NATO will intervene directly if he uses chemical or biological weapons or if he gives them to his dangerous allies. At the same time, Washington and its allies should make a concerted and decisive push to help the Syrian people remove al-Assad from power.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT