The Thick Red Line: White House Cautious on Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

Obama may be caught between his public words and his private concerns about getting more involved in Syria.

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Khalil Ashawi / REUTERS

A member of the Free Syrian Army holds his weapon as he sits on a sofa in the middle of a street in Deir al-Zor April 2, 2013.

Catching up with the assessments of France, Great Britain and Israel, the Obama administration now says it believes that chemical weapons, including the lethal nerve agent sarin, have been used in Syria. Given that President Obama has declared chemical weapons use a “red line,” this could mean war.

But it almost certainly won’t. Obama is extremely loath to get deeply involved in Syria. The administration says it’s still not sure if chemical weapons were used, or by whom exactly. And the way Obama officials view it, their policy options in Syria range from bad to terrible.

For starters, note the hedged nature of the administration’s language today. In letters to two senators who had asked about reports of Syrian chemical weapons use, John McCain and Carl Levin, the White House says that U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed with “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin was deployed; it warns that the “chain of custody” of the weapons is unclear; and it explains that the U.S. is pushing for “a comprehensive United Nations investigation” to “establish the facts.” Speaking to reporters today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel underscored that last point: “We need all the facts. We need all the information,” he said.

Generally speaking, you don’t take dramatic action right after admitting that the facts are unclear. Although several members of Congress are declaring the red line crossed, McCain, who is among them, told CNN today that the administration’s careful spin “may give them an out for not acting in a decisive fashion.”

The practical options also stink. So long as American, and possibly Israeli, national security is not directly threatened, there’s no political will for American boots on the ground. Securing Syria’s chemical weapons sites could require 100,000 of them. Limited airstrikes against responsible forces and commanders is a more plausible option, but would require credible information about exactly who oversaw and carried out the chemical attacks. (A direct strike on Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is almost surely out of the question.) No wonder Obama never spelled out the consequences of crossing his ‘red line.’

But perhaps most important is the basic fact that Barack Obama wants to keep his distance from Syria’s civil war. After withdrawing from Iraq, Obama has zero appetite for another vicious sectarian Middle East conflict–particularly one so geopolitically charged it could make Afghanistan seem like a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It appears that Obama will only risk getting embroiled in Syria if he has to. (Speaking of Iraq, today’s White House letter cautions that “we have learned from our own recent experience [that] intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient” to guide policy-making. In other words: we’re not risking another war over phantom WMDs.)

When he first announced his red line, Obama probably didn’t imagine a scenario like this one. The White House likely feared a large scale and well-documented chemical massacre along the lines of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical agents against the Iraqi Kurds of Halabja, which shocked the world with images of dead mothers cradling lifeless babies in the village’s streets. Obama was also intent on warning Assad against the possible transfer of chemical weapons to a terrorist group like Hezbollah. But the suspected attacks in Syria were on a small scale, and seem not to have been extensively recorded. And probably because Assad isn’t suicidal, there is no sign he has handed off chemical weapons to terrorist groups.

“The U.S. government has known for quite some time that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but the political implications of ‘red lines’ being crossed has prevented the acknowledgement” until now, says Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War. “The real truth is that there are simply no viable, or desirable, contingency plans in the eyes of the President.”

Last year, several top Obama cabinet officials recommended that the U.S. supply arms to moderate factions within the Syrian insurgency, but Obama has resisted. No senior Obama official has ever publicly recommend military action. “Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment,” Hagel told Congress on April 17. “You better be damn sure, as sure as you can be, before you get into something, because once you’re into it, there isn’t any backing out.”

So let the investigation proceed. But it’s likely to be long and, given Russia’s resistance to western intervention in Syria, unlikely to lead to bold new United Nations action. But if a the growing unofficial consensus hardens that Assad did in fact gas his own people, and Obama continues to avoid a tough response, he’ll have a new problem on his hands: the credibility of his warnings to dangerous foreign regimes.

With reporting by Jay Newton-Small

23 comments
jmac
jmac

Obama can send Cheney over to shake Assad's hand, then wait fifteen years and have a Republican select Cheney as VP and invade  based on Weapons of Mass Destruction.    

cent-fan
cent-fan

I will admit at first to thinking that a small fleet of drones could putter around Syrian skies and pop off at targets of opportunity wherever they're found.  I related Syria too closely with all the other theaters of the Middle East that the drones "police" and that are either "friendly" to the drone operation (like some parts of the governments of Pakistan and Iraq) or are incapable of shooting the drones down.  But Syria has a long established military with advanced weapons and even a "no fly" zone would be hard to enforce without losing our most advance aircraft and their pilots.

  I guess we need to advance the mach 2 stealth drones on the drawing boards a little faster to keep the "boots on the ground" option safely off the table.  Politically though, not pulling the trigger somehow and somewhere is harder to sell... I guess because we don't feel patriotic without something blowing up(?).

MrObvious
MrObvious

So why do 'wingers that always complain about spending scream for more wars?

The greatest possible waste of our tax money, resources and young bright ones.

arvay
arvay

Simple fact: the US is in no shape to go to war in any major conflict. 

Which intervention in Syria would provoke. Russia backs Assad, has military forces in country and on ships ready to intervene. We can't afford a war. Our armed forces are in tatters  -- forget al those male enhancement high-tech weapons and notice that our solders are killing themselves faster than the Taliban can.

Another simple fact: Obama, having just spoken at the opening of the idiot Bush's library, does not want to have another war as his legacy. Politics often trumps policy, and this is one case where that's a good thing.

Issuing the "red line" statement was a dumb mistake. So now we'll have Obama waffling and Republican sock puppets performing onanism on CNN.

The chemical weapons are a problem for Israel, not us. They exist because Assad wanted a deterrent to Israel's nukes. Let the mighty IDF extract them, if they can. Over here, we have a recession to avoid.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

Someone as politically astute as Obama should know better than to draw such red lines unless he's prepared to act.  I can't foresee the U.S. involving itself in any material way, so why make such a statement in the first place?  As the author rightly notes in the final paragraph, his credibility is now shot.  As people say about British cops, "Stop, or I'll say stop again!"

notsacredh
notsacredh

Heat and fanatical religion. The Middle East is worse than the worst parts of our south. They have too much of both.

bojack
bojack

If chemical weapons were indeed used it wouldn't be the first time for the region.

During the North Yemen Civil War (1962-'70), Egypt sided with the rebels (known as republicans), while Saudi Arabia and Jordan sided the Royalists. When Nasser (Egypt's president) saw that the war was stalemated he sent in 70,000 troops and ordered the use of chemical weapons. Chemical bombs were deployed in the form of blistering mustard gas, and later nerve gas. Conservative estimates put the dead at 1500 and many thousands maimed.

In the Iran-Iraq War (1980-'88) Saddam Hussein also used used nerve gas when the war was turning against him. It is estimated that 100,000 Iranian troops died horrific deaths either immediately or in the months and years that followed.

In 1988, Saddam again used gas to punish the rebelious Kurds of northern Iraq. In the most infamous incident, in the Kurdish village of Halajba, 5000 were killed and many thousands more wounded due to mustard gas and nerve agents Additionally, gas attacks were launched against forty other Kurdish villages.

If the Assad regime finds that the war is turning further against him, he will order gas attacks on a massive scale. If the Salafist (Islamist) led rebels can procure chemical weapoins, they to will use it. This you can take to the bank.

The Mideast ain't the Midwest.

thecamelshumpblog.com

notsacredh
notsacredh

"Although several members of Congress are declaring the red line crossed, McCain, who is among them, told CNN today that the administration’s careful spin “may give them an out for not acting in a decisive fashion.”

Thank God that clown McCain was never president. I think his brains are scrambled. Syria is involved in a civil war. When has becoming involved in another country's civil war ever been a good idea? McCain doesn't have to commit the troops and put their lives on the line. All he has to do is complain and invent "vast conspiracies" that play up to his senate buddies. We're listening to John Mccain? Reall? Any person stupid enough to pick Sarah palin as a running mate and next in line to run the country doesn't deserve the time of day, let alone a say in how the country is run.

arvay
arvay

@cent-fan  

All these technological male enhancement weapons do is provide delusions for people who haven't noticed that we've just been defeated in the last two wars we started -- Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan should have been just an expedition to eliminate Osama bin Laden (which Obama finally did) and inflict punishment of the Taliban, but the idiot Bush muffed it and then attacked the wrong country, Iraq.

A major war in the Mideast, with the EU tottering and the US economy sequestering itself back toward recession? Only a lunatic would want that, and Obama surely doesn't want the Barrack Obama library to have a major wing devoted to the war he started that folded the weak western economies.

If there's an upside to this, it's that we're in no shape to get involved in Syria.  Obama spoke foolishly with his chemical weapons  "red line" -- never make statements you can't back up.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb Inspector Clouseau correctly stated that Iraq had no WMDs and yet Dart Vader and Elmer Fudd chose to invade anyway.

outsider
outsider

Because Isreal was demanding it; you might recall that benny wasn't pleased with obama, and obama was taking heat for it.

As mentioned, its telling that obama didn't say what the consequences would be. Only that syria better not use chemical weapons.

curt3rd
curt3rd

When has becoming involved in another country's civil war ever been a good idea?

Worked out pretty good for us when the French got involved in the American Revolutionary War.

outsider
outsider

Agreed. I was thinking that too; he can complain without having to be responsible.

This guy wants a continuous state of war. People say the US isn't the worlds police force - but its not for lack of trying on McCains part.

I'm glad he lost the election too.

Now if he'd just shut up...

But since he spoke, how much longer until we hear from his yappy dog, Graham?

curt3rd
curt3rd

I find it funny that everything that goes wrong during the Obama administration gets blamed on Bush but he gets no credit for Bin Laden.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

I'm sure you're right, it's just dispiriting to the President debase himself like that.

notsacredh
notsacredh

If McCain would have won the primary in 2000, I had planned on voting for him. That McCain doesn't exist anymore. He's not even close to being the same person. I had very little respect left for him by 2008 and his decision to choose Palin as VP killed what little respect I had left. Now, he's just fighting to keep whatever minor shreds of publicity he can garner. He's like a shriner in a parade on a tricycle. You want to laugh, but then you start to think that a real man used to be behind the clown makeup.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Im just saying that most of the intel that led to Bin Laden was collected under the Bush administration .  We  are on Obamas second term and he hasnt done pretty much anything on the economy like he said he would and he keeps blaming it on Bush.  If he gets the blame for everything else, you think he could get a little credit on getting Bin Laden.

arvay
arvay

@curt3rd 

 Really? Like what? The economic disaster was inherited from Bush, Bush sent a giant army to the wrong country and missed bin Laden -- he screwed that up and at one point said bin Laden was not important.

No one blames Bush for the fact that Obama first raised expectations in the Muslim world, then backed down like a puppy when Netanyahu flipped him the bird. Or that his "red lines" statement about Syrian chemical weapons was a dumb threat he can't back up.

Bush created a disaster that has few parallels in American history. He started two major unfunded wars -- creating an Iranian ally in Iran and embarking on a hopeless nation-building exercise in Afghanistan.

Obama is a lot smarter than Bush, but-his own mistakes will be remembered -- they just don't measure up to the enormity of W.