The bloody civil war in Syria, which began more than two years ago at the height of the Arab Spring, continues to escalate as more disturbing mass killings and evidence of chemical weapons-use have surfaced in the last few weeks.
On April 23, Israeli intelligence officials claimed that they had found evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack in March. The claims came a week after Britain and France raised suspicions about the use of chemical weapons and in a letter urged the United Nations to conduct a thorough investigation.
The United States was initially hesitant to echo Israel’s claims, calling for more careful investigation that might reveal more conclusive evidence. However, two days later, the White House wrote to leaders in Congress saying that American intelligence officials concluded “with varying degrees of confidence” the use of sarin on a small scale by Syrian government forces. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said that those intelligence claims had been based on soil samples in the ground and blood samples from victims.
The evidence of chemical warfare is significant because of two statements made by President Obama over the last year. Last summer, Obama warned that any use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a “red line” for escalation of U.S. involvement. While visiting Israel in March of this year, he reiterated his statement, calling the use of chemical weapons “a game changer” in the Syrian conflict.
So far, the White House has not said what action it might take if more conclusive evidence of chemical weapon use is presented. Many experts say that the President is caught in the bind of sticking to his word while being reluctant to mire the U.S. with another conflict in the Middle East. Last Friday, President Obama said he “[does] not foresee a scenario in which … American boots on the ground in Syria would be good for America or be good for Syria.”
While the U.S. has so far been reluctant to discuss military action in Syria, the country’s neighbor, Israel, has been proactive in preparing to defend itself against any threats to its security. Last Thursday, Israeli planes struck a shipment of missiles en route from Iran to Hezbollah. The shipment was being stored in a warehouse at Damascus’ airport. This follows an Israeli airstrike in January that hit a convoy similarly delivering arms to Hezbollah. The United States believes Israel used Lebanese airspace to launch the air-to-ground missiles.
On Saturday, another series of airstrikes engulfed the Syrian government’s military research and defense facilities in flames. The compound lying on the outskirts of Damascus was struck in the pre-dawn hours. So far, Israel has not claimed responsibility for the strikes. Syrian Foreign Minister has already called the attack “a declaration of war” by Israel.
In recent days, sectarian violence between government Alawite forces and Sunni Syrians has left hundreds dead. Late last week, many Sunni families fled Banias and Baida, two towns where especially cruel massacres had taken place. Government troops torched houses and stabbed and shot civilians in the streets.
Thus far, the Syrian civil war has claimed over 70,000 lives. It has also displaced millions of people in the country, with over one million refugees spilling across borders into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.