I suppose I should give the Obama administration a bit of credit; part of me wondered if they would try to avoid acknowledging the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons until the war was over. A January U.S. State Department cable discussed the possible use of the weapons; Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said it had “probably” been used in March.
As I wrote not too long ago . . .
The vast majority of the American people, want nothing to do with the maelstrom that is what’s left of Syria. That may be even be the wise course considering how neither side appears to be aligned with our interests and both sides have proven capable of brutality.
But polling indicates that public opinion shifts if chemical weapons get used: Support for involving the U.S. military in general rises to 63 percent if Syria’s government uses chemical weapons on its own people. If the Syrian government lost control of their stockpile of chemical weapons — known to be among the world’s largest — 70 percent would support U.S. military action.
So a whole lot rides on whether or not the Western public sees evidence that the Assad regime uses chemical weapons.
A few weeks ago, in Syria, the French government declared sarin has been used:
“These results show the presence of sarin in the samples that are in our possession,” Fabius said. “In view of these elements, France now has the certainty that the sarin gas was used in Syria several times and in a localized manner.”
The announcement did not say when, where or by whom it may have been used in Syria, where rebels have been fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war.
The announcement coincided with the release of a draft report posted on the website of the U.N. Human Rights Council that concludes: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons. The precise agents, delivery systems or perpetrators could not be identified.”
The administration responded to this with “Well, we’re not quite sure.” Maybe that “red line” is still intact and the president doesn’t have to do anything.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the United States was working with the French and other allies as well as the Syrian opposition to determine those answers.
“We need to expand the evidence we have,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We need to make it reviewable; we need to have it corroborated before we make any decisions based on the clear violation that use of chemical weapons would represent by the Syrian regime. So, we will continue in that effort.”
Asked how long that might take, he said, “I don’t have a timetable for you.”
Let’s not kid ourselves about what’s happening here. Assad’s regime is periodically using chemical weapons, but not on a large scale, and testing to see what the U.S. reaction is. Our government is looking for any thin reed of plausible deniability, any gray area, any way to avoid acknowledging that the “red line” is getting crossed more frequently than a crosswalk in Times Square.
By avoiding any action beyond garden-variety sanctions and nonlethal aid to the rebels — does anyone think a regime willing to use sarin will be deterred by sanctions? — we’re declaring to every leader, present and future, that you can use chemical weapons against your opponents as long as you don’t use them too broadly. The world hasn’t changed that much since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
The absurdly revealing comment from Obama national-security staffer Ben Rhoades today: “There is an urgency to the situation. There has been an urgency to the situation for two years.”