The now almost certain fact that Syria has used Sarin nerve gas on domestic enemies sharply raises the ante in the desperate death struggle of the Assad regime. It is taking on the character of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, which was kept going by foreign support for both sides, while the international community conducted a porous embargo, like that imposed by the European Community on the former Yugoslavia. (Once Serbia was armed to the teeth, the embargo was enforced, facilitating Serbian ethnic cleansing as they simply massacred their enemies until U.S. Republican Senate leader Robert Dole passed a "lift and strike" resolution that forced President Clinton's and Europe's hand.) The war on Serbia has gone on for an astonishingly long time. The general rules of thumb are that regimes that don't fire on their own citizens when real unrest starts are doomed, and those that do, and can get their orders carried out, can't use draftees to kill civilians in-country for very long before the armed and police forces suffer wholesale desertions. There has been lots of that in Syria, but the Alawi factional government has poured fire on the civil population for years and killed many thousands of them, and while it has suffered numerous defections there are no signs of its basic ethnic component crumbling altogether. Assad and his fellow Alawi are under no illusions that reprisals would be barbarous and profound if the Alawi lost, and the struggle seems to be becoming more desperate and unconditional as it wears on.
The United States and some other important countries have warned, in language reminiscent of the endless rather feeble warnings against Iran, that chemical weapons were a red line and crossing it would produce severe consequences. As with Iran and North Korea, the follow-through, including all Hillary Clinton's huffing and puffing about "crippling sanctions," has been so much hot air, although the sanctions and the cyber attacks have undoubtedly discommoded the regime in Iran. On this occasion with Syria, even the Russians, who have never really abandoned the Iranians in their right to develop and deploy Nuclear weapons, have rallied. But the question remains, and is posed ever more skeptically, of whether the international community will actually, finally, do anything. The North Korean case is easily distinguishable, as the antics of that country must in large measure be controllable, or at least subject to suffocation or deterrence by China. That country supplies almost all North Korea's strategic needs and it is hard to escape the suspicion that Beijing is manipulating its attack dog and using the loopy Pyongyang despotism of the Kim family, as it did from shortly after the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, as a goad and flail to irritate, provoke, and generally knock off balance the Japanese and South Koreans, as well as the U.S. Russia has generally gone along with this throughout the history of this malignant tandem.
But worrisome though North Korea is, there is no doubt that completely irresponsible conduct would , as the South Koreans have clearly stated, bring massive reprisals, up to and including the "obliteration" of everyone in North Korea. It is hard to conceive of China and Japan together not having the ability to prevent a complete departure from sanity even by this most peculiar of all regimes in organized countries. The United States has armed South Korea and Japan with heavy defensive anti-missile capabilities and while there may be conventional tests of missile systems capable of delivering nuclear warheads, the local correlation of forces is such that the potential damage North Korea could do is limited to one offensive action that there would be a good chance of knocking out, with a certainty of a withering response.
Iran is of greater concern, as Iran is an ancient and substantial country with a distinct culture and not just a stub-end as North Korea is, an artificial government imposed on a reluctant though now thoroughly cowed and regimented people reflecting the demarcation of occupation zones between the U.S.S.R. and U.S. by junior American officers in 1945 (including future secretary of State Dean Rusk). Iran at least cloaks its ambitions in ancient Persian claims to regional hegemony and swaddles its aggression and belligerent posturing behind religious fervor. It is all made more sinister and violent by regular lapses into polemical aspirations to genocidal anti-Semitism. But Israel is a nuclear power and there can be little doubt that an Iranian attack on Israel would lead to the extreme devastation of that country by Israel, and after provocations that would probably achieve the unprecedented feat of rallying most Islamic and certainly most world opinion to support of the Jewish state. And Iran, despite rigged elections and outbursts of general disorder, is a functioning country governed, however erratically and corruptly, by a somewhat coherent regime.
Syria is now a failed state, where the Saudis on one side and the Iranians on the other, are funnelling in extensive quantities of weapons and munitions, as the Russians, Germans, and Italians did in Spain in that war just before World War II. There is now a serious possibility of nerve gas with full delivery capability being used and/or being transmitted to terrorist organizations which the Assad government has long supplied with conventional weapons. A government in its death-throes facing extermination by tribal and ethnic majorities in a country it has long governed with brutal heavy-handedness is much more likely to have recourse to extreme measures than the regime that seems able to rivet itself durably on the back of the unenthused Iranians, or the deranged North Korean puppet of Beijing. The fact that Assad used the Sarin against a small number of people may indicate panic by local officials, or more likely a considered policy of the gradual introduction of this new escalation.
That is why all eyes are again on Washington, which, under this administration wants nothing more than to pull back towards or within its own borders and put no more boots on barren political ground. It could assure an Assad defeat without committing ground forces and could presumably extract some comfort level from its protégés in the Syrian conflict that, whatever they did after seizing Damascus, chemical weapons would not be on the menu. Latest indications are that the Obama administration is finally seriously considering giving "lethal aid," real weapons, to the rebels, and the President is sending secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow to try to organize a common front with Putin. It is a complicated and dangerous impasse, but the greatest danger may now be in doing nothing. This American government has endlessly repeated that everything is on the table in every crisis area, but since very little has actually been done, there is grave question about its will to do anything. This is show-time; the world is watching and many habitual trouble-makers, including perhaps even the mischievous and treacherous gangster thugdom of Putin's Russia, are more amenable than they have been to support an effective intervention by the United States. If not now, when?
ALSO ON HUFFPOST
May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 8, 2009: President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 3, 2009: President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 4, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a baby while greeting guests during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 26, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 9, 2012: President Barack Obama runs around his desk in the Oval Office with Sarah Froman, daughter of Nancy Goodman and Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, July 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 13, 2012: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel on the North Portico of the White House following the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony and dinner in his honor, June 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 23, 2012: President Barack Obama tours the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, and Sara Bloomfield, museum director, April 23, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office, June 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 24, 2012: President Barack Obama stops to view the moon and Venus before boarding Marine One in Boulder, Colo., April 24, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Feb. 21, 2012: President Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues" concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 20, 2011: "The Obama family was scheduled to tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio before dinner one night. But when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog had dissipated somewhat so they decided to make the drive up the mountain. It was quite clear when they arrived and then the fog started to roll back in. I managed to capture this silhouette as they viewed the statute one last time just before departure." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2011: "The top photograph shows the President having a water gun fight with his daughter Sasha on her birthday weekend at Camp David. Unbeknownst to me, David Lienemann captured a similar photo of the Vice President on the very same day." (Official White House Photos by Pete Souza and David Lienemann)
Dec. 11, 2011: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 14, 2011: President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 11, 2011: "This photograph by Chuck Kennedy has to catch your eye. It shows Guinness Book of World Records holder John Cassidy performing a balloon act for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room following a Let's Move event." (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
June 21, 2011: First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at Mandela's home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
May 29, 2011: President Barack Obama greets Hugh Hills, 85, in front of his home in Joplin, Mo., May 29, 2011. Hills hid in a closet during the tornado, which destroyed the second floor and half the first floor of his house. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 9, 2011: President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk towards the White House after observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Arizona shooting, on the South Lawn, Jan. 10, 2011. White House staff joined the President and First Lady for the moment of silence.(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 7, 2011: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, and members of the Australian and American delegations look up at the presidential seal in the Oval Office ceiling following their bilateral meeting, March 7, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 31, 2010: "The skies opened up on Memorial Day outside of Chicago. When the lightning began, the Secret Service told the President that it was too dangerous to proceed. He took the stage by himself and informed the audience that his speech was canceled and that for everyone's safety, they should return to their busses. Later, he boarded a few of the busses to thank them for attending and apologized for not being able to speak." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 20, 2010: President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 28, 2010: President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 21, 2010: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 31, 2010: President Barack Obama practices his pitching form with personal aide Reggie Love and Jake Levine in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 31, 2010. The President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of the baseball season prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Feb. 1, 2009: "During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
March 15, 2009: "The Obama family was introduced to a prospective family dog at a secret greet on a Sunday. After spending about an hour with him, the family decided he was the one. Here, the dog ran alongside the President in an East Wing hallway. The dog returned to his trainer while the Obama's embarked on their first international trip. I had to keep these photos secret until a few weeks later, when the dog was brought 'home' to the White House and introduced to the world as Bo." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 20, 2009: "President-elect Barack Obama was about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 19, 2009: "Snowball in hand, the President chases Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the White House colonnade. To escape, Rahm ran through the Rose Garden, which unfortunately for him, was knee-deep in snow." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 10, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal for the first time at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 16, 2010: "President Obama had called on the two former Presidents to help with the situation in Haiti. During their public remarks in the Rose Garden, President Clinton had said about President Bush, 'I've already figured out how I can get him to do some things that he didn't sign on for.' Later, back in the Oval, President Bush is jokingly asking President Clinton what were those things he had in mind." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama takes a shot during a game with Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Aug. 16, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Aug. 16, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
April 21, 2009: President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy walk down the South Lawn sidewalk at the White House April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 10, 2009: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
July 13, 2009: President Barack Obama feigns a punch while talking about health care reform with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Phil Schiliro and Larry Summers in the Outer Oval Office, July 13, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 26, 2009: President Barack Obama jokingly reacts to news that staffer Nora Becker will be leaving to pursue a joint MD and PhD in healthcare economics, during the White House staff picnic on the South Lawn, June 26, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 2, 2009: President Barack Obama and former First Lady Nancy Reagan walk side-by-side through Center Hall in the White House, June 2, 2009. To the left of Mrs. Reagan hangs her official White House portrait as First Lady. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: President Barack Obama tours the Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza (left) and the Pyramid of Khafre, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Feb. 18, 2009: President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer's camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners at Dobson High School, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 21, 2009: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)