Editorial Board

Punish Assad’s Chemical Weapons Use With Airstrikes

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad needs to be shown that using chemical weapons against his opponents won’t be tolerated. If he has used such weapons -- or if he refuses to let international inspectors investigate the scene of the latest atrocity -- the U.S. and its allies should respond with force.

Videos posted on the Internet suggest that hundreds may have died this week in a poison gas attack. Assad’s ally Russia has joined the United Nations, the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East in calling for Syria’s leader to cooperate with an investigation. That’s an important development, but it’s unlikely to suffice. Russia has gutted a draft UN Security Council resolution that would have put real pressure on Assad to allow the inspections. Stalling has worked well for Assad so far, and he may hope to persist with that policy.

He needs to be shown otherwise. U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged today in a CNN interview that “we don’t expect cooperation given their past history.” The president has been cautious about intervening in Syria, and rightly so, but the calculation is changing. Assad is testing the limits. The U.S. and its allies need to shift the conversation in a fundamental way: the purpose of intervention should not be to change the course of the civil war but rather to make clear that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Assad continues to insist that he’s innocent. The coalition should set a deadline -- measured in days, not weeks -- for Assad to let the UN inspectors in to do their work. If he continues to deny access, then that stance should be regarded as an admission that chemical weapons have been used. And that, in turn, should trigger airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies. The president should gather a coalition to support this mission and affirm the legality of its action.

France opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 because it didn’t believe there was sufficient proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It has now called for force to be used against Syria -- with or without UN Security Council authorization -- if the use of chemical weapons is confirmed. Turkey and other U.S. allies in the region have long demanded firmer action. A coalition is forming and waiting to be led.

Israel has shown that it’s possible to launch targeted strikes in Syria without destroying air defenses beforehand -- a daunting task that General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he’s reluctant to undertake. Planners at the Pentagon are, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, refining military options that would primarily involve weapons launched from afar such as cruise missiles.

That would be the right level of force. The operation must be designed -- and seen to be designed -- not to topple Assad but to show him and everybody else that use of chemical weapons is a war crime that won’t go unpunished.