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Goldberg: How many more 'red lines' must Syria cross?

A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon

A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as he watches a Syrian Army jet in Fafeen village, north of Aleppo province, Syria. (Dec. 11, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

So many red lines, so little time.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is arguing, inferentially, that the regime in Syria has indeed crossed President Barack Obama's "red line" by deploying chemical weapons against civilians.

"There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information that the regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons, including sarin, and the room for doubt about this continues to diminish," Cameron said.

In the post-Iraq era, "limited but persuasive information" isn't enough to trigger whatever action Obama is -- or was -- contemplating against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but it seems as if the administration won't be able to wish away such evidence forever. (So far, the U.K., France, Israel and the Pentagon have expressed their suspicions that Assad did, in fact, use chemical weapons.) So, to be charitable, let's say that what we've been seeing this week from the Obama administration is not torpor and moral disassociation, but caution.

Even so, the focus on this particular red line has obscured the many other red lines Assad has crossed -- not necessarily those articulated by the president, or by other leaders, but red lines recognized by civilized people everywhere. I'm one of those people who is preoccupied with the effects of chemical weapons, and the moral consequences of using them (repeated visits to Halabja, the Kurdish town in Iraq gassed by Saddam Hussein, will do that to you). And while I'm the first to acknowledge the ghastly nature of sarin, it's important to remember that it isn't the only horrible weapon in Assad's arsenal.

'Unreal Scene'

For instance, a red line against raping girls was crossed many months ago. A Human Rights Watch report tells what happened in the town of Karm al-Zeitoun when government agents visited one apartment building. According to an eyewitness the group calls Selma, pro-Assad forces knocked on a neighbor's door: "One of them said, 'Open or we will shoot.' She did not open the door and they shot at it," Selma said.

When the men entered, the neighbor told them, "I will kiss your feet but don't come near us." Selma could hear a girl fighting with one of them.

"He was saying, 'Oh, you are going to scratch me too?' She pushed him and he shot her in the head. She was the oldest. 20 years old."

Selma continued: "They grabbed the youngest. She was 12. You could hear her say, 'Don't take my clothes off.' The mother said, 'This girl is 12.'" When Selma saw the girl later, "her sweater was torn, all the way down the front." The men had raped her and two other girls, ages 16 and 18. "I waited, hiding after they left," Selma said.

"The scene on the inside was unreal. The 12 year old was lying on the ground, blood to her knees. I told them to get up, that this happened against their will. More than one person had raped the 12 year old. I heard them from my hiding place, saying, 'Come on, enough, my turn.' She was torn the length of a forefinger." The Assad regime has also crossed a red line against the raping of boys.

This is from testimony published in that same report, from a man the authors call Samih: "There were 15 and 16-year-old kids in the cell with us, six or seven of them with their fingernails pulled, their faces beaten. They treat the kids even worse than the adults. There is torture, but there is also rape for the boys. We would see them when the guards brought them back into the cell. It's indescribable. You can't talk about it. One boy came into the cell bleeding from behind. He couldn't walk. It was something they just did to the boys. We would cry for them."

Scuds, Knives

The Assad regime crossed another red line when it chose to launch Scud missiles against its own civilians. One example: 20 people were killed in March when a Scud landed in the northern town of Hretaan. Yet another red line was crossed when the regime decided to use the Syrian Air Force to target bread lines and hospitals. Last August, Amnesty International reported that a 13-year-old girl named Kifa' Samra and her 11-year-old brother, Zakarya, were killed while lining up for bread in Aleppo.

Here's another red line the regime has crossed: the one that is meant to delineate and stigmatize ethnic cleansing. Pro- government militias, aided by the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Hezbollah, have been expelling Sunnis from the Alawite regions of Syria -- Assad is a member of the Alawite minority -- possibly in anticipation of building an Alawite stronghold in case the government loses control of Damascus. Last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that pro-government forces had killed dozens in the mostly Sunni town of al-Bayda. Many of the victims were killed with knives.

I could go on, but I'll end this litany here, and note that my point is only that the use of sarin gas represents a violated red line mainly because the president said it would.

The U.S. should lead a campaign of more active measures against the Assad regime (a no-fly zone imposed over safe havens carved from Syrian territory, for instance, could save lives) not only because the Syrian government may be using chemical weapons, but because its tactics -- industrial-scale murder, ethnic cleansing and mass rape -- make its continued rule an affront to civilization.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.


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