American interests in Syria are clear: preventing terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons; depriving Iran of its most important ally and staging-base in the Middle East; and preventing al Qaeda from establishing an uncontested safe haven in the Levant. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which President Obama's proposed "limited strike" will secure these interests, but not about whether the interests are real or vital. Bashar al-Assad has one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world. Al Qaeda franchises control territory in Syria and have some of the most effective fighting forces on the ground. Iran's own military and security forces are active in Syria in defense of the Assad regime. The threat to Americans is very real.
Assad's expanding use of chemical weapons against his own people is more than an atrocity and an egregious violation of international law and norms. It also materially increases the risk that terrorists, whether al Qaeda or Hezbollah, will get hold of some warheads. When not in use, weapons of mass destruction are generally kept in heavily guarded and secured bunkers-regimes that possess them fear both that they might be stolen or smuggled away and that the enemy against whom the weapons are aimed might destroy them preemptively. Terrorists seeking to lay hands on the weapons, generally, would either have to penetrate those defenses (usually a task beyond their means), infiltrate the guarding force (not a very plausible option for al Qaeda facing an Alawite defense force loyal to Assad), or hope that the defense collapses, leaving the position open to plunder. Even in that last case, the United States or other concerned powers, seeing the departure of the guard force, could use bombs to prevent the terrorists from getting into the facility or removing materials from it or, in the worst case, insert troops into the facilities that were compromised, whose positions are presumably well known to us.
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