The images we've seen this week are grotesque, disturbing, heart breaking and may be just a preview of things to come.
The chemical attacks - apparently by the Syrian government against rebel strongholds outside of Damascus - have killed an estimated 1,300, including dozens of children.
In a civil war against the Assad regime, more than 100,000 people have been killed as Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have supported the government. But the chilling specter is the potential for al Qaeda to not only take power in this fractured state, or part of it, but to gain control of Syria's chemical stockpiles.
Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar spent the last 20 years of his Senate career trying to prevent this type of attack, forging the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act that initially took aim at the decaying nuclear, biological and chemical stockpiles in the old Soviet Union. Over time, Nunn-Lugar worked to rid Albania of its chemical stockpiles
In a statement to Howey Politics Indiana, Lugar said last Thursday morning, “One year ago, while in Moscow, I made a public suggestion that the United States and Russia work together to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria. Recent reports on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the destabilizing effect the conflict in Syria is having on the broader Middle East, underscore the continuing importance of the United States seeking to work with Russia and our NATO allies to ensure that chemical and biological weapons in Syria and elsewhere are identified and destroyed.”
Lugar was defeated for reelection in the Republican primary in 2012, leaving a void in Congress on who will continue the crusade to stabilize and eliminate the WMD stockpiles. There has been notable success, as states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Albania and Kazakhstan have given up their stockpiles.
But the events in Syria raise the nightmare scenario of terror networks obtaining chemical shells. As Nunn-Lugar officials explained on an August 2007 tour of Russia, one sarin gas shell strapped in C4 plastic explosives and carried in a briefcase could kill tens of thousands of people in a Western subway or sports stadium.
How harrowing could this get?
The Washington Examiner wrote: Syrian President Bashar Assad's anti-U.S. strategy during the 2003-11 Iraq War has come back to bite him. Mr. Assad allowed al Qaeda operatives to set up a “rat line” through his country and into northeastern Iraq. Hundreds of young terrorists, many recruited from North Africa, took airline flights into Damascus and joined networks ready to sneak them across the border. Mr. Assad's objective: to keep the U.S. occupation off balance by helping al Qaeda kill Americans. But Mr. Assad's move also enabled al Qaeda to set up a logistics foothold in Syria that now is being used against him.
There is little doubt that if al Qaeda obtained this type of weaponry, it would raise the terrorism stakes, here, in Europe and Russia.
In 2005, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama traveled to Russia with Lugar, forging an alliance that prompted the two to write legislation to expand Nunn-Lugar to cover conventional weapons. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama cited his relationship with Lugar at his campaign kickoff in Springfield, Ill., and his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech.
President Obama now finds himself accountable for what he identified as a “red line” exactly a year prior to this attack, should Syria gas its own people.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” Obama said on Aug. 20, 2012. “We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
The White House said it was trying to confirm the reports independently from this week's attack.
Lugar said on MSNBC Thursday, “The President is going to have to deal with Congress on these issues. The 'red line' . . . means going to war. Essentially, the President said there would be enormous consequences. He needs to start outlining what would be involved. This is very dangerous because we may be aiding people who will use the arms against us and our allies.”
Lugar said that during his 2012 visit to Russia, he urged them to “draw up a plan to capture the chemical weapons in Syria” with the United States. With Lugar out of the Senate and Russian President Vladimir Putin sabre rattling against U.S. interests, there is a leadership void, a dramatic shift from the Nunn-Lugar era. More worrisome are the 2014 Olympics in that neighborhood at Sochi on the Black Sea.
This atrocity poses a test for President Obama. He faces a similar scenario President Bill Clinton did during the genocide in Rwanda and Serbia. Clinton did not act in Rwanda, and eventually bombed Serbia into submission at the behest of Indiana U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey.
The U.S. public has little appetite for another ground excursion in a Middle Eastern country. But bombing runways and stockpiles, no fly zones, and special ops taking out WMD should be on the President's table for a swift decision.
Inaction could reward us with a Pandora’s Box.
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.