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 12, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT