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The White House today admitted what has been known for some time: The Syrian regime used chemical weapons to attack its own people. But “admitted” isn’t exactly the right word; more like equivocated that the al-Assad government could have, might have, somehow let loose some sarin nerve gas, which could have, but may not have, “exposed” some Syrians, possibly, to chemical agents. Maybe.
The history on this question is a little convoluted: The opposition first accused the al-Assad regime of using chemical agents some time ago, but those accusations were, for the most part, dismissed by the White House. Only yesterday, Defense secretary Chuck Hagel downplayed the charges, saying that, “Suspicions are one thing; evidence is another.” But one nation after another, most recently Israel, made clear that they had little doubt that al-Assad’s regime did in fact employ lethal chemical weapons in an attack on its own people. So, by early on April 25, the White House too allowed that it appear sarin was indeed used.
Here’s the problem for President Barack Obama: In 2012, he said the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” for the United States, a “game changer” that would theoretically move the White House from its position of committed indifference to the ongoing conflict in Syria. Under increasing pressure during the presidential election, Obama sought out a clear position on Syria that would make him appear cautious, yet decisive. Hence, the red line. But with the election won, he stepped back from his earlier decisiveness to a more fuzzy expression of concern, with vague threats that in the event of chemical weapons use, the Syrian government would be “held accountable.”
Now that red line/accountable moment has arrived. Earlier reports about the use of chlorine gas (a chemical weapon, but not explicitly banned) have given way to clear reports about the use of sarin, a nerve agent specifically prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. So what has the administration done? First, downplayed the reports. Is sarin use “credible” and “corroborated”? Was sarin “used”, or were Syrians simply “exposed”? Would al-Assad really use just a little sarin? Why not the whole hog? And of course, there are the magic three words on which so many momentous decisions rest: Did the Syrian regime use “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons? Because President Obama was clear that they needed to move or use “a whole bunch” before any red line was crossed. So instead of reacting angrily and threatening repercussions, as he once promised, the Obama administration mildly remonstrated with al-Assad, warning against “any additional use,” because, you know, next time we’ll really mean it.
This administration has mastered the art of defining deviancy down – particularly when it comes to the deviancy of rogue states and WMD (read Iran, North Korea, Syria). What should Obama do? Work more seriously toward the formation of a Syrian government in exile. Begin the process of arming moderates among the Syrian rebels, something both the United Kingdom and France have already urged. Take out Syrian air power, being used to attack the Syrian population and resupply the Syrian military. Take out scud launchers. Create a humanitarian corridor, a far easier task once Syrian airpower is disabled. These are DOABLE goals, requiring no boots on the ground. And while sorting the moderates from the Qatar-backed terrorists fighting al-Assad is getting harder and harder, surely such a job is not beyond the grasp of the United States of America.
What are our interests? Al-Assad is Iran’s most important ally. A wholesale collapse of Syria will reverberate through the region, most directly affecting Syria’s neighbors – Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq. It is better to try to manage the situation before it becomes a regional conflagration that requires more U.S. involvement.
Syria is a stain on Obama’s record. It is a disgrace that America will not soon live down. And perhaps most important to this most self-regarding of presidents, allowing a tin pot tyrant of al-Assad’s caliber to ignore a red line laid down by the president of the United States sends a message to every other would be adversary: a threat from Barack Obama means very little. Very little indeed.
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