WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than two years of a bloody civil war, President Barack Obama has declared Syria a national security threat that must be answered with a military strike — and in doing so he is warning Americans as much about the leaders of Iran and North Korea as about Bashar Assad.
America’s credibility with those countries will be an immediate casualty if it stands down now on Syria, administration officials said in making their case for U.S. missile strikes.
Following an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, the White House declared Syria’s two-year civil war a top risk to American interests. If the U.S. fails to respond, officials said this week, it could encourage other hostile governments to use or develop weapons of mass destruction without fear of being punished.
It’s a connection that’s not immediately clear to many Americans — especially after the White House refused to send military support earlier in the Syrian war. The recent chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 people, U.S. intelligence officials said. Other estimates are somewhat lower. The wider war has killed more than 100,000.
In House and Senate hearings this week designed to seek congressional approval to strike Assad ‘s government — probably with cruise missiles but not with ground troops — top administration officials pleaded with skeptical lawmakers to consider the risks of doing nothing.
“Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day.
“They are all listening for our silence,” Kerry said.
Over the past two years, the White House has mightily resisted intervening in Syria’s civil war with U.S. military force. A year ago, Obama signaled the one “red line” exception would be the use of chemical weapons.
At the same time, the U.S. used a heavy hand in years of negotiations with Iran as world powers try to persuade Tehran to significantly scale back its nuclear program, and seek to prevent its ability to build a bomb.
And Washington repeatedly and sternly warned North Korea against launching underground nuclear tests and missiles that rattled its regional neighbors and raised concerns that Pyongyang is building a nuclear-tipped rocket that can reach the United States.
“Iran and North Korea are carefully watching our next move,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., during the House hearing Wednesday. “A refusal to act in Syria after the president has set such a clear red line will be seen as a green light by the Iranian regime, who will see that we don’t have the will to back up our words.”