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?