With growing civilian casualties and some nine million refugees, Syria’s civil war has taken a turn for worse.
Direct participation of both the U.S. and Israel now appears to have become inevitable. That adds a new dimension to what too often has been seen as a parallel to the Spanish Civil War [1936-39]. That war, with Mussolini and Hitler aiding the Nationalist/Fascist revolt with weapons and advisers while the Allied powers remained neutral, has often been seen as the prelude to World War II.
In a recent defense engagement the U.S. brought down one of Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s fighters, its first direct intervention in the war where it has maintained a defensive shield protecting U.S. interests. But it has carefully avoided conflict with either Russia or Iran, allies both on the ground supporters of the al Basher regime. Israel, a contiguous neighbor, has tried to remain neutral. But it recently returned artillery fire across its northern Golan Heights border when bombardments inside Syria from ISIS strayed albeit with no casualties. But both ISIS and Hizbollah, Moslem terrorists operating as part of the rebellion against the al Assad regime, but are also Jerusalem’s opponents.
With this threat of direct U.S. and Israeli intervention, Syria now becomes a critical test for Pres. Donald Trump’s foreign policy. A threat to intervene directly if al Assad or the Soviet and Iranian forces allied with him use chemical weapons, in effect against unarmed populations, would be a major test of Trump’s overall policy of nonintervention. That includes, of course,Washington’s close alliance with Israel. Trump had made such nonintervention basic to his new foreign policy following “America First” goals.
Chemical warfare in Syria would put into question three very different but important aspects of U.S. policy:
1] Chemical warfare in the increasingly chaotic conflict would lead to a massive increase in noncombatant victims. The Syrian fighting, much of it for control of strategic urban areas, has taken heavy casualties among women and children as well as the combatants. The fighting often involves unrestrictive bombing by Soviet aircraft supporting the regime. These civilian casualties have become an increasing concern for American public opinion as well as official government policy.
2] although Trump has recently endorsed the strategy of keeping his policy options secret in oder to use ambiguity as a strategic tactic, the fact is the rest of the world sees opposition to the spread of chemical weapons as a basic American policy in Syria. It is assumed that their use would bring direct U.S. intervention as was threatened but ultimately rejected by a more reluctant Obama Administration.
3] Chemical warfare was initiated in World War I with an arms development race among the warring parties. By the end of the war, scientists working for both sides had tested some 3,000 different chemicals for use as possible weapons. Some 50 of these poisons were actually tried out on the battlefield including a widespread use of chlorine for which there were continuing postwar casualties for U.S. military., But the horror and fear of the weapons’ use – even though responsible for less than 1% of WWI’s fatalities and about 7% of its casualties – led to repeated and relative success in banning them in various international treaties and wars leading up to WWII. Nor were they used in WWII.Were chemical weapons to become pervasive in Syria now it would be not only be a serious new development in the war there, but would break the general taboo that has held them in check since 1915 as a weapon of even in all-out war.