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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT