05/01/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 07/01/2013 05:12 EDT

It's Showtime in Syria -- Will Obama Finally Intervene?

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Academy of Sciences 150th Anniversary event April 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama said the U.S. could lose years of scientific research as a result of automatic spending cuts that have hit federal agencies. (Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)

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?


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