Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Syria's chemical weapons threat demands a response

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 2:08 PM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
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
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT