White House Muted on Alleged Syrian Chemical Atrocity

Hundreds claimed dead, but experts don't expect change in Obama's cautious policy

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Bassam Khabieh / REUTERS

A man holds a dead child among bodies of people who activists say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013

Updated on Thursday, Aug. 22 2013 at 10:24am

Almost exactly one year after Barack Obama declared that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would shift his thinking about that country’s bloody civil war, the White House found itself responding — again — to reports of just such an event. This one, Syrian opposition groups say, killed between 500 and 1,300 people.

For now, however, the White House isn’t exactly springing into action. “We are calling for this U.N. investigation to be conducted,” said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday. “This is a situation that is ongoing, and our efforts to work with the international community and to work with the Syrian opposition to remove [President Bashar] Assad from power are ongoing.” Earnest upgraded his rhetoric slightly Thursday morning, telling reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Buffalo where the President was scheduled to give a speech about making college more affordable, that the images out of Syria “are nothing short of horrifying.”

Still, the translation amounts to: Don’t hold your breath waiting for air strikes.

The muted U.S. response fuels a sense that, despite the President’s stern words, the red line was never as clear as it seemed. Indeed, some analysts believe Obama modified his position in April, when he said the “systematic” use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” for his Syrian policy, which critics call too passive.

(MORE: Syrian Opposition Says Deadly Chemical Attack Kills Hundreds in Damascus)

“The current red line is drawn along the lines of ‘systematic’ use of weapons of mass destruction,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So, the question is, Do they mean systematic in terms of the number of incidents over time — or in terms of scale? If proven true, this event probably qualifies as scale. But the problem is, the red line keeps moving over time.”

As Tabler notes, there is some uncertainty about the report’s credibility — particularly given the motive Syrian rebels have in stoking Western outrage over possible chemical-weapons use. But the Obama Administration did announce in June that it believes allegations that the Assad regime has conducted previous chemical attacks. The Syrian regime denies ever using chemical weapons.

The attack comes days after a U.N. team finally arrived in Syria to investigate those past incidents. Wednesday’s attack occurred within 5 miles of the Four Seasons hotel where the U.N. workers were sleeping. Having the U.N. workers already in the country might help to determine whether a chemical agent was used, says Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, particularly as compared with the attacks alleged to have occurred months ago. “If this was an attack, they have a better chance of proving it, if they’re allowed [to visit the site], as it’s fresher.”

But the team’s original mandate did not include determining which side might have used such weapons — only whether they were used. And Russia’s government — which supports its longtime ally, Assad — quickly pointed fingers at Syria’s rebels. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich suggested the attack was “a provocation planned in advance” and hyped by “biased regional media.”

(PHOTOS: The Plight of Syrian Refugees Outside Zaatari)

If proved, however, the latest episode would be far more troubling than previous ones, which the White House says claimed 100 to 150 lives. The toll in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday may be almost 10 times higher.

“Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice,” tweeted U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. Still, a dramatic U.S. response is unlikely. In a letter to a member of Congress obtained by the Associated Press this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey argued that intervening on behalf of Syria’s rebels would be a mistake, because even a victorious rebel force would be unlikely to support U.S. interests. And despite some calls in Congress for more action, “The will to do more just isn’t there, as far as I can tell,” says Steve Heydemann, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Some analysts fear that American tolerance of another chemical attack would embolden Assad. “The U.S. Administration seems reluctant to get involved in ways that would prevent such attacks from happening, thereby giving the green light for the Syrian government to continue its escalation,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

The Obama Administration, meanwhile, seems to grasp the awkwardness of the red-line concept. Asked on Wednesday whether Obama sees a red line regarding the military-led crackdown in Egypt, Earnest, the White House spokesman, offered a quip: “I didn’t bring my red pen out with me today,” he said.

MORE: U.N. Chemical-Weapons Experts Arrive in Syria: Are They on a Fool’s Errand?

80 comments
Veronik09
Veronik09

@TIME Cuando mencioné los errores cometidos por fuerzas extranjeras sobre territorios árabes, quise escribir Irak, y no Pakistán. Perdón.

Veronik09
Veronik09

@TIME Primero asegurarse, no es fácil, son idiosincracias muy distintas a las occidentales, cultura religión, ideologías, tribus distintas

Veronik09
Veronik09

@TIME Es difícil tomar decisiones si es que no se tienen datos certeros de la situación. Se cometieron errores en Pakistán,Afganistán,Libia.

Icansee4miles
Icansee4miles

Israel and the world, take note.  Iran's puppet Syria gassed its own people; Iran will have no problem nuking anyone who stands up to them.  Read Amazon Kindle's new book, The Bahrain Protocol; and learn of Israel's new partner, both of whom are not afraid to take on the Expansionist Persian Empire!!

Altold
Altold

Leave Obama out of this matter. Let him concentrate in talking peace and revamping the American economy. Do not push him into another war. If he goes into another war,sorry, bye bye US

sushilpershad
sushilpershad

For USA There Are Only Option In Syria Is To Chose Between The Devil And The Deep Sea The Best Would Be For All Countries To Stop Aiding Both Sides Till Peace Prevails !!  

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

IN CAPS....SO SENIORS CAN SEE / READ BETTER......EXCEPT EAGLE EYE MANTIS AND HIS CREW WHO ARE TOO FEW

ASSAD IS ASSAD......AND CIVIL WAR IS CRUEL....HOWEVER.....IF THE OTHER SIDE WINS......THEY WILL WIPE OUT THE RMAINING CHRISTIANS IN DAMASCUS......WHO ASSAD  HAS TOLERATED AND OTHERS BEFORE HIM.....FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS.....

IN EGYPT......THE MOSLEM BROTHERHOOD IS KILLING THE COPTIC CHRISTIANS......WHO HAVE BEEN IN EGYPT ....BEFORE THERE WAS ISLAM.....

WHY IS THE POPE SILENT OF ALL THESE KILLINGS.....WHY NOT DECLARE A NEW CRUSADE?......WHY IS OBAMA THE MOSLEM.....NOT SAYING A THING?.....

I SAY.....AMERICA SHULD STAY NEUTRAL IN SYRIA.....

VALEN TINE, WORLD HISTORIAN, COMEDIAN.....LOL

PrinceHabibu
PrinceHabibu

It always surprises me when I see the number of people that are willing to not just involve, but outright have the US decide the leader of a sovereign state. Syria is a sovereign state and as such they have a right to decide who their leader will be. yeah there are those who oppose Assad, but there are those who are for him. this was the case in Libya with Gaddafi, it is the case in Egypt with mursi, and so in Syria. those people cannot simply be ignored because the opposition has placed itself in favor of western nations, US in particular. not to mention bombing fixes nothing and only makes things worse. case an point, lets look at what has become of libya. can anyone actually say that they are better off? it will take maybe 15 years to return to where they were before the intervention. obviously the right and legal thing will be ignored so lets then talk in real terms which are that unless Russia is convinced to give up its interests there, it is pointless to even speculate since not even the US would risk war with Russia over tiny Syria much less the incapable French and rest of Europe which even combined stand no chance against Russia without the US. so no, we will not be seeing intervention the likes of lybia since Russia has more to guard in Syria than Libya and they will not be fooled again.

GeorgeDouglas
GeorgeDouglas

Obama has had a big part in destroying any chance of peace in the Middle East. He is an incompetent, narcissistic, racist snob who actually thinks he is intelligent. He hid while four Americans were slaughtered in Libya, played cards during the killing of Bin Laden, except for a quick photo op, he voted "present" while a state senator and he has never worked in his life.

He is totally worthless. Look who he backed in Egypt, the leader of the largest terrorist group in the country and then he insulted all Americans by bringing the leader of that terrorist group to OUR White House. All Obama knows how to do is read out loud. He has basically screwed up all that we fought for in Iraq, by abandoning our mission there before it was finished. He is doing the same thing in Afghanistan! When the people rose up for freedom in Iran, Obama, along with Hillary Clinton, hid again. Obama shot his mouth off about what would happen if Assad used chemical weapons. Assad has used them twice and Obama has done NOTHING! No one is afraid of Obama. He is a wuss. He is a disgrace to the USA.

gabbyogbechie
gabbyogbechie

Seem too good to be true that just days after the arrival of the U.N. team, the Syrian regime resolved to authenticate the accusation that it had been using chemical weapons against its people by giving the UN team a ringside seat. It seems to me that amongst the groups who are capable of using a thousand plus souls as pawns in the pursuit of the ouster of the Assad regime, Al Qaeda will hardly be wanting. As reprehensible as the Assad regime is, the Afghanistan situation, where the USA virtually handed the country to the Taliban; or the recent Libyan situation where Gaddafi was removed, with the country getting thrown into ungovernable confusion, is not replicated. Lastly, just take a look at Egypt, and one would appreciate why no nation should encourage any forceful regime changes in the Middle East. 

The best bet out of the Syrian mess is to encourage the belligerents to talk about peace, and then

 go on the polls. That, is the best way to get rid of that monster. Any other way will play into the hands of Al Qaeda. 

reallife
reallife

The Nobel committee must be preparing a second peace prize 

LOL



reallife
reallife

Don't cross this red line, I mean it! ...  no, I meant THIS red line, and now i really mean it...  I'm telling you, don't do it, if you cross THIS red line I'll really let you have it.... and I mean it THIS time.... As I said don't do it don't cross this pink line now or...


LOL 

what a farse



t.ngern
t.ngern

The US could shut down Syria's air force by hitting Syrian air bases with cruise missiles armed with runway destroying munitions.  That would severely damage the Assad regime's ability to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.  The damage that doing nothing, after President Obama spoke of a red line, does to US credibility is enormous.  The damage to human rights that is being done by doing nothing to stop the use of chemical weapons against anyone, let alone civilians, is even worse.

Mr_Valeri
Mr_Valeri

Someone needs to help this people, who this is going to be? Shame on this people who kill kids in the adult war.

brunostrange
brunostrange

It's amazing (though I guess not surprising) to see how most of the articles in the mainstream media that reference Syria, do so from a standpoint of "how should the United States get involved"?

The notion of not doing anything  - because a) it's not our fight, and b) anything short of a sustained military campaign (which clearly has little to none American public support) would be futile - does not even enter the conversation.

But the Washington establishment - whether it's the politicians, the DC media, or the contractors that depend on federal largesse - insist that something must be done.

juryout
juryout

@jenanmoussa @akhbar Jenan please let the Syrian people know that the citizens of US hate that we are letting Obama take a back seat.

Syricide
Syricide

All this video and pictures of the 'aftermath' but none of the actual impact of this supposed chemical missile

branchltd
branchltd

It the US has a satellite positioned over this area - which they most likely do - they already know what happened.  This is not a part of the world that has much cloud cover.  You can see everything and the resolution is exceedingly fine.

cent-fan
cent-fan

We can either ask the people desperate to keep power in the government on penalty of losing their money and safety to please, please, be nice or we can ask the five or so guys riding around in a car that form the local police, court, judge, jury, and executioner to go home, kiss their wives, and play ball with their kids... we can do that in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and dozens of other hot spots in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Or we can raise US taxes through the roof and start sending our kids over there to get in the middle of all of it everywhere.  I want to hear from someone who wants to go that way.  I want to hear from them right now.

Eyun
Eyun

Want to help countries like Egypt and Syria? Send them rubber bullets, tear gas, and tasers. They've been fighting wars so when disruptive protest break out the only munitions they have on hand to put it down are lethal, and when they use lethal force the fighting starts again.

Syricide
Syricide

Reality is beginning to set in after the ridiculous furore orchestrated by our "NATO media". When people settle down and process what this propaganda machine is trying to pummel our senses with, they will realize how much contempt and disrespect the media machine has for us.

Now it is being reported that AlJazeera and Reuters released videos and pictures of the massacre that were compiled one day BEFORE the massacre occurred.

But quite apart from this disgusting "journalism" there is the small issue of logic and reason.  

The premise that Assad would wait for the UN to arrive before he orders the dropping of chemical weapons on area approximately 5-6 miles away from where the UN are located AND  on an region (East Ghouta) that is in the control of his own troops. 

It beggars belief, and symptomatic of the reality that the population can be 'trusted' to absorb and accept this aberration of truth

littleredtop
littleredtop

The Syrian opposition seems to have taken a play from the playbook of one of their other enemies as they grossly exaggerate the number of casualties attributed to this alleged gas attack.   The odd thing about this gas attack is that it didn't take the lives of any of the opposition only everyday citizens.   That fact, combined with gross exaggerations, leads me to believe that it was actually the opposition who released this gas attack hoping to take advantage of the fact that UN inspectors had just arrived and the world's eyes were now focused on Syria's alleged use of gas.  If anything, the UN should support Syria and assist in the capture and extermination of the opposition terrorists. 

poorinmich
poorinmich

It appears that Obama is an amateur in the World Politics. Putin - the Master.

LeTrina_
LeTrina_

@TIME: White House calls images out of Syria 'horrifying,' but don't expect a change in policy | ti.me/1auoUPx

hillyer09
hillyer09

@TIME Take it to UN and see how Russia and China vote.

ClintHoward5
ClintHoward5

@TIME How do you help Syria if you cannot trust the government or the rebels?

Rawan_Elzubair
Rawan_Elzubair

@TIME Why is that something to be reported. That has been their attitude from the start

DanBruce
DanBruce

Those who want the White House to intervene in Syria should immediately go down to their nearest recruiting office and sign up, requesting deployment to Syria. Serving in combat is more difficult than commenting on a blog (I know from firsthand experience), but it would be more effective. Maybe John McCain and Lindset Graham can lead a brigade of volunteers into Damascus. 

weatherman396
weatherman396

@TIME a bit rich coming from a country that's willing to invade countries and spills the blood of innocent ppl based on lies a greed

hamood120674
hamood120674

@TIME : USA IGNORANCE AND APATHY TO SYRIA TURMOIL IS LACKING WISDEM AND INSIGHT. HISTORY NEVER FORGET OR FORGIVE.

NickHoutBay
NickHoutBay

@TIME Expect nothing from the spineless coward that is Obama! Yet - the stupid idiot - together with Sarkozy & Cameron - interfered in Libya

bribri
bribri

Still haven't seen any evidence that Assad used chemical weapons. Also one has to stop and ask, why would he use chemical weapons? After all, we are talking about several dozen, maybe a couple hundred deaths due to chemical weapons, yet the MSM is reporting 100k+ deaths total. It simply doesn't make sense.


Also the UN has actually found the rebels already did use chemical weapons, so I don't think it's a stretch to say this may have been done by the rebels. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10039672/UN-accuses-Syrian-rebels-of-chemical-weapons-use.html

IvánMolinaCastrillón
IvánMolinaCastrillón

So what we should do, gather some bombs and planes and start war against Syria just like that? Who's is paying for an action like that?  What will be the real cost of jumping into war like a policemen in downtown Miami? What if,  like Sibir said, this attack comes from another milicia with interest in the conflict?  Come on think!


leelee
leelee

@valentine.godoflove 

Wow. I truly think there are certain Christians, like you, that have a fast track straight to hell.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@GeorgeDouglas Yes Obama invaded Iraq based on lies and destabilized the power structure in the whole region, Oh wait that was the Clueless Cowboy.

PrinceHabibu
PrinceHabibu

@t.ngern The question is not what the US can or cannot do because in reality, Syria's air defense system would put up a fight for minutes maybe if the US really decided to focus the full potential of its assets in the area to that end. Rather, the real challenge is Russia which has a military base there and has sent back and forth its fleets of warships which if they decide to engage are more than capable of shooting down any and all cruise missiles which the US would launch from far away ships. so the battle is not syira vs USA, that is absurd. rather it is Russia vs USA. and as Russia has shown no signs of willingness to give up its interests there, I doubt well see any activity soon from the US or otherwise. that said, Assad's military would never use chem weapons against rebels. 1. their military is superior in everyway compared to rebels so he needs not use them. he d save them for foreign intervention. 2. and this is more important, he d loose any support he had left, even Russia could no longer protect him at the UN if he did that so it would be political suicide and most likely regime suicide. this is likely another French attempt to frame him as they did a few minths ago and were humiliated when the Russians could without a doubt prove it was rebels not assad who used chem weapons.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@Syricide This claim is based on a lack of understanding of how Youtube assigns timestamps. Here's a direct quote from March 21, 2010 on the Google Youtube product forum:

"All videos will show the upload time in pacific standard time zone - no matter in what part of the world you are living."

Syria is 10 hours ahead of California, so if the attack happened at 0300, and a video was uploaded 0600 on August 21 in Syria, Youtube would assign it a timestamp of 2000 (8:00 PM PST), August 20. Content could have been uploaded as late as 0959 Damascus time, and still be timestamped as August 20 on Youtube.

fred.fries6
fred.fries6

@hillyer09 @TIME Who cares what China or Russia votes, Obama wanted the job, so deal with it.  Murder by any other name is still Murder.

t.ngern
t.ngern

@brunostrange @jenanmoussa @akhbar Bruno, do you think that the only way for the US to get involved would mean sending troops?  Do you only watch TV on a black and white set too?