With growing civilian casualties and 9 million refugees, Syria’s civil war has taken a turn for worse. Civil wars are prone to do that.
Direct participation of both the United States and Israel now appears to have become all but inevitable. This adds a new dimension to what is often seen as a parallel to the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. That war, with Mussolini and Hitler aiding the Nationalist/Fascist side with weapons and advisers and what would become the Allied powers remaining neutral, was a prelude to World War II.
When the U.S. Air Force shot down one of Bashar Assad’s fighter planes the United States made the first direct intervention in the war, where it has maintained a defensive shield to protect only American interests. The Trump administration has studiously avoided conflict with either Russia or Iran, which supports the Assad regime. Israel, a contiguous neighbor, has tried to remain neutral, too.
But the Israelis recently returned artillery fire across its northern Golan Heights border when ISIS bombardments strayed outside Syria, albeit without Israeli casualties. Both ISIS and Hezbollah terrorists, part of the struggle against the Assad regime, are Israel’s blood enemies, too.
Syria now becomes a critical test for the Trump foreign policy. A threat to intervene directly, if Mr. Assad or the Soviet and Iranian forces allied with him use chemical weapons against unarmed population, would be the ultimate test of President Trump’s policy of nonintervention. Mr. Trump has made such nonintervention basic to his foreign policy of thinking of “America First.”
Chemical warfare in Syria would put into consideration points of U.S. policy. Adding chemical weapons to the chaotic conflict would lead to a dramatic increase in noncombatant victims. The fighting for control of the cities has already inflicted heavy casualties among women and children. The fighting often includes unrestricted bombing by Soviet aircraft supporting the regime. These civilian casualties have made a dramatic impact on both government policy and American public opinion.
Further, although Mr. Trump has endorsed the strategy of keeping options secret to use ambiguity as a tactic, the rest of the world sees opposition to the spread of chemical weapons as a basic American policy in Syria. The world assumes, even after Barack Obama drew his famous “red line” against chemical weapons in Syria and then forgot about it, that Mr. Trump is made of sterner stuff. Only a few would be surprised to see the United States act.
Poison gas was used in World War I and the effects were devastating and long lasting. By the end of the war, scientists working for both sides had tested 3,000 different chemicals for use as weapons. Fifty of these poisons actually made it to the battlefield, including chlorine, which was used against American soldiers. Horror and fear of the weapons grew, even though gas inflicted only 7 percent of the casualties and fewer than 1 percent of battlefield deaths in that war to end war. Nevertheless, even these relatively small numbers led to international treaties banning chemical weapons in the years leading up to World War II, beginning in 1939. Neither Hitler nor the Japanese used chemical weapons even as their situations grew ever more desperate in the spring and summer of 1945. Syria would break this taboo at considerable peril to Mr. Assad. If he survived the chemical war he would doubtless face trial as a war criminal.