Syria, Obama, and the Problem with ‘Red Lines’

Members of the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam brigade hold their weapons sitting in the back of an open pickup truck on their way from al-Rabeea to the al-Turkman mountains in the Latakia province, western Syria on April 25. ( MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration said Thursday U.S. intelligence agencies believe Syrian forces have used chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war, but it remains unclear if officials believe the alleged actions cross a “red line” that will lead to U.S.  military involvement there.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said any evidence that Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad’s forces were using chemical or biological weapons against civilians or rebel forces would cross a “red line” that could cause the U.S. to step in. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration has notified lawmakers in a letter that Assad’s forces have done just that. Lawmakers already are pressuring Obama to get involved in the years-old civil war, revealing, for any commander in chief, the problem with establishing “red lines.”

“The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. “As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours, and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue.

“We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime,” Hagel said. “As the letter [to lawmakers] states, the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable. The United States has an obligation to fully investigate – including with all key partners and allies, and through the United Nations – evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.”

But Hagel said nothing about the finding moving the United States any closer to becoming directly involved in the Syrian conflict. He said U.S. officials need to “investigate” further because “this is serious business — we need all the facts.”

Make no mistake, the disclosure of the intel community assessment will step up calls for U.S. action from members of both parties on Capitol Hill.

As Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Defense News in March 24:

“If there is evidence that the government of Syria has used chemical weapons, and intends to use them in the future, as the president said, ‘This is the red line.’ You cannot say, ‘This is the red line,’ and then not enforce it. I believe the administration is looking at all options. I do not believe that we can countenance any use of chemical weapons.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., in a statement, was among the first lawmakers on Thursday to call on the commander in chief to enforce his own “red line” warning:

“As the leader of the free world, there is a deep moral imperative as well. Instead, it appears that the president is outsourcing our national security analysis to the United Nations. I do question the utility of red lines if they lack clearly delineated boundaries and meaningful consequences. I am confident the President does not wish for America’s resolve to be called into question.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was close behind:

“This assessment is deeply troubling, and if correct, means that President Obama’s red line has certainly been crossed. While more work needs to be done to fully verify this assessment — like making sure we understand the chain of custody of the evidence — it is becoming increasingly clear that we must step up our efforts.”

Obama likely is about to learn the problem with “red line” warnings is facts change — the embattled dictator your intelligence and national security advisers predicted yesterday would not be bold enough to use his most lethal weapons might become desperate enough to do so tomorrow.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett
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