U.S. should save Syrian lives

In this Friday, March 2, 2012 file photo, men hold revolutionary Syrian flags during an anti-government protest in a town in northern Syria. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)

President Barack Obama’s line in the sand, aimed at stopping Syrian aggression, has long since disappeared, and America’s subsequent efforts to limit the damage of the Syrian civil war are failing. It is time for a renewed focus on simply saving civilian lives.

In August 2013 President Obama made a deal with Russia and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad that Syria would declare all its chemical weapons and allow them to be disposed of by the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The purpose of the president’s decision was to spare civilians from chemical attack.

That deal has now been breached in spirit and in fact.

Diplomatic sources have told Reuters that an OPCW inspection last fall of Syria’s main chemical weapons laboratory found traces of the precursor chemicals for Sarin and VX, a clear violation of the 2013 agreement.

Also there are reliable reports that Syria is using chlorine gas dropped from aircraft against civilians in violation of its treaty obligations.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Air Force continues to drop shrapnel-filled “barrel bombs” on civilian targets, killing and maiming thousands.

The way to stop this is to create safe areas protected by no-fly zones.

Creating and enforcing no-fly zones in Syria will not only reduce the scale of the humanitarian disaster imposed on his country by Assad, but if undertaken with the cooperation of neighboring states like Turkey and Jordan, both facing large Syrian refugee burdens, it could also strengthen the non-radical Syrian opposition, which President Obama has promised to train and equip.

In a recent report Amnesty International said civilians are being subjected to criminal and “systematic” attacks in Aleppo by helicopters dropping barrel bombs.

Yet in February President Assad categorically denied the use of barrel bombs in an interview with the BBC.

It is a “core interest” of the United States, Mr. Obama declared in a recent New York Times interview, “that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.” More recently, he cited America’s need to “strengthen forces in Syria and build moderate opposition in Syria.”

The president’s comments appear to lean toward more involvement in Syria, and a no-fly zone is the logical next step.

Bipartisan support for action is building in Congress. In a letter last month decrying “unspeakable” atrocities in Syria, four senators urged President Obama to “work with key allies to establish and enforce one or more humanitarian safe zones in Syria without delay.” These zones would be enforced, if necessary by “air assets” and would provide corridors for the transit of “desperately needed humanitarian supplies.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John McCain, R-Ariz., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Addressing a key point in reducing the turmoil in Syria, the letter also called on the president to persuade Turkey to secure its border with Syria to make it more difficult for extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida to get new foreign recruits. Turkey strongly supports the creation of no-fly zones.

The Syrian civil war has already lasted five years. Recent events suggest that President Assad is losing control of the war. Humanitarian no-fly zones could hasten his departure.