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White Phosphorous and Red Lines



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A video has surfaced from the Syrian opposition which appears to show a regime helicopter (an Mi-24 Hind) dropping white-phosphorous bombs, which are banned by international law as offensive weapons:

Stratfor explains, further, “A Syrian opposition activist said helicopters flown by regime forces dropped phosphorous bombs on Dayr al-Zawr, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported Dec. 7.”

White phosphorous is a brittle substance that burns extremely brightly. Phosphorous bombs are not completely banned by international law, because their use for illumination and, debatably, for intimidation purposes, is allowed; but the weapon can also cause severe chemical burns, harm victims with its vapor, and poison water or food supplies. (That said, Syria is not signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention regulating this, though almost every other nation in the world is.) 

This potential use of chemical weapons comes after sporadic reports of the regime’s use of cluster bombs, also banned by some international treaties (though again, to which Syria is not party). Now, on Wednesday, U.S. officials told NBC News that the regime has loaded the chemicals necessary to deploy sarin gas, a highly lethal chemical weapon, into bombs for use.

The U.S. had at one point seemed to declare that movement of chemical weapons in Syria would justify or require U.S. action, with President Obama declaring at an August 20 news conference that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized”; given that the gas is now being loaded into bombs, it seems fair to say, they have now been moved from their hiding places to bases from which they can be deployed. An NSC spokesman, however, claims that the president meant “‘moving around’ means proliferation,” which seems implausible: If the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons were in transit and about to fall into the hands of other states or non-state terrorist actors such as Hezbollah, that would constitute a “red line,” and presumably even this administration would not flinch in acting.

But that seems unlikely, something Assad has little interest in doing, and doesn’t seem to be what the president was talking about when he set his first “red line” — “moving around or being utilized” implies the first event as a hint that the second was about to occur (though we wouldn’t always be able to observe it before the second did), i.e., the Syrian government preparing its weapons, not transferring them to other actors — and now the Syrian government has done that, and the U.S. is not going to respond.

As to what the new red line implies, the State Department has not been very clear, either, with explaining what exactly the U.S. would do if Assad crosses the new red line. When asked yesterday if a redline would involve “some kind of a military response,” Deputy State spokesman Mark Toner responded that, “We’re not going to get into what the consequences would be, other than to say that there’s a red line. . . A red line is a red line.”



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