|This is no joke. Repeat, this is no joke|
First, the problem with the mainstream, as opposed to the more professional discussion of an attack on the Ba'athist Syrian regime is that it casually conflates a response by the international community to the use of Chemical Weapons against a civilian population with an intervention in the Syrian civil war with the goal of producing a favored outcome. What we're talking about here is an attack intended to deter the use of Sarin as a lethal crowd control solution. Sarin is a brutally efficient counterinsurgency tool, that can clear entire neighborhoods without damaging them, and those neighborhoods can be repopulated in a matter of hours.
So why would a quick 48 hour 'drive by' attack by US naval forces in the Mediterranean serve to deter a desperate regime from clearing the suburbs of his Capital city with nerve gas? The key is to understand the combination of factors that make cruise missiles effective. They are essentially 1000 pound bombs, capable of leveling a large building, and they are pinpoint accurate, using a combination of GPS signalling and terrain maps to actively guide to a very precise predetermined impact point. A hundred and fifty 1000 pound bombs, placed precisely on the right targets, can change the history of a nation. So from that standpoint, it's important to understand that the attack being proposed is not a pinprick, nor is it some kind of symbolic statement - a great deal of damage can be done with an attack like this, damage to the most critical infrastructure that al-Assad is using to kill thousands of his people every month.
Regardless of how you feel about American involvement in the Syrian civil war, there are questions here that must be answered. There is no doubt that there was a release of Sarin gas that killed well over a thousand civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and you'd have to be pretty blind or dishonest to believe that release was the action of rebel forces. So the real argument we're having here is 'what is the role of the international community in deterring the use of CW by government forces in internal conflicts"? If the answer is that the world should not get involved in these matters, that government forces putting down rebellion by any means is nothing more than an internal problem, then you have to acknowledge the kind of world you're willing to live in. Because, despite their unfortunate conflation with nuclear weapons, chemical toxins are easy to produce and are an ideal solution to a restive population - at least for a brutal dictator with no compunction for taking the lives of thousands of his citizens.
For me, I'd like to see the world respond violently to any CW release anywhere, any time, by anyone. I don't think humans should be exterminated like bugs - and make no mistake, Sarin is just RAID for humans. And without a strong reaction from the global community, I believe we're going to see more autocrats use nerve gas as an ultimate crowd control tool when they are confronted with democracy activist protests. Just think about the massive overuse of tear gas in Turkey this summer and ask yourself, honestly, how far we are from just a little more toxicity to bring the 'terrorists' under control?
I guess in an ideal world we'd be having a discussion of our role in protecting civilians from their own government - a discussion we were not willing to have after Srebrenica, and again after Rwanda. We found a way to do the right thing over Misrata in the Spring of 2011, but even then, the world wasn't willing to develop a framework for making determinations about when they can contribute to reduce the slaughter, and when a Western military solution has nothing to offer. But the world can't figure out how to have conversations like that, so we address each new atrocity like it's something new, something we've never seen before. And more often than not, we bungle it, and a whole lot of people die. And we should recognize that if we could have prevented that, we own some responsibility for it.