There are some reports that the Syrian government is starting to use WMD’s — sarin in particular — in its ongoing civil war. This use was identified by the President in August as a potential “red line” for American involvement, an off-the-cuff remark he is now regretting:
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. American officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile delivery systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed.
This situation has only gotten tenser after Israeli air strikes, although these targeted weapons intended for Hezbollah.
The NYT article details the internal discussions within the White House last year. What this was about was trying to deter Assad from using his WMDs with a vague threat of force. But now the President is in a dilemma. Does he use force and get us entangled in a war that no one thinks we should get involved in? Or does he back down and lose credibility?
I expect him to stall for a while, demanding ironclad proof that WMDs have been used. If that proof emerges, then I’m not sure what to expect. Probably vague hints that we’re doing something even when we aren’t.
Our only real interest — and perhaps the President’s out here — is that we do not want those weapons getting lost in the chaos of civil war or falling into the hands of terrorists. We may be at a point where airstrikes will be needed to be sure of that, assuming airstrikes can ever be sure of that. But it’s clear that we need a plan for the future. This situation is about to get extremely ugly.