Over the weekend, the argument for a punitive strike against Syria gained additional strength. John Kerry, the secretary of state, cited new evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons last month, killing 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. He explained that hair and blood samples from first responders tested positive for “signatures of sarin.”
This is how the case must be made, the Obama White House revealing the way it has reached the conclusion that a strike is necessary, punishing the government of Bashar al-Assad for violating the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. Such evidence will be a centerpiece of the debate Congress will have, now that the president rightly has chosen to seek its approval.
In a way, the president had little choice. If he can claim moral authority for the mission, he has yet to gain essential political and diplomatic legitimacy. That objective suffered a blow last week when the British Parliament opposed military action against Syria. The debate in the House of Commons reflected, in part, the burden of the Iraq War, Washington and others having rushed the case for military intervention, the warnings about weapons of mass destruction proving false.
The circumstances in Syria are different. Yet it remains crucial that the president not act alone, or merely with France, Turkey and few other countries. Avenues to international support have been blocked at the United Nations, with Russia and China standing in the way. Still, the opportunity exists to apply pressure, to get, say, the Arab League to take a stronger stand.
This pursuit of legitimacy involves something larger. The Syrian civil war is a volatile mix, so many regional actors playing roles, from Iran and Hezbollah to al-Qaida, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. New sectarian violence recently hit Lebanon. Jordan is struggling with refugees. Israel is watching warily. The possibility is there for a wider and more destructive conflict. Thus, the attention now on chemical weapons could serve as an opening for a broader discussion of a political solution.
How would a punitive missile strike, even limited and targeted, affect things? Experts warn about unintended consequences, including heightened anti-American feelings. The building of a case allows for sharpening the focus and developing shared responsibility, the morality, in this instance, not enough, practicality part of the equation.
The question is: What can be done, if anything, to move the conflict in a better direction? With so much at stake, Congress must be part of the decision-making, the president, if he prevails, gaining part of the authority required.