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