BRODSKY: Never Mind that Red Line in Syria

by Matthew RJ Brodsky | Posted on

At first blush, it appeared that the Obama administration finally agreed with the intelligence assessments of its allies—Britain, France, and Israel—namely, that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against the opposition. After all, on April 25 the White House sent a letter to Congressional leaders stating: “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” This would mean that the regime has violated President Obama’s “red line”, where if the Syrian government began moving or using chemical weapons, it would constitute a “game-changer” for U.S. policy that would be met with “enormous consequences.” But no sooner had the letter been delivered did the administration begin walking away from its own assessment.

“There is much more to be done to verify conclusively that the red line that the president has talked about has been crossed,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “We are continuing to assess what happened — when, where,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed separately. “I think we should wait to get the facts before we make any judgments on what action, if any should be taken, and what kind of action.”

Ever the consummate law professor-in-chief, Barrack Obama elaborated during the White House press conference on April 30:

“[T]he use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer not simply for the United States but for the international community.  And the reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don’t want that genie out of the bottle.  So when I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t unique to — that wasn’t a position unique to the United States and it shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

So the “enormous consequences” Obama was referring to means sending the International Criminal Court after Assad? When? After Assad takes Obama’s advice from August 2011 to “step aside”? It’s hard to imagine that the Syrian dictator is shuddering in fear as he ponders that scenario. One may imagine that after butchering 80,000 of his countrymen, a certain steadiness of the nerves sets in as Assad has managed to escape any robust form of international punishment since the conflict began. And never mind the fact that President Obama appears to be speaking for the world when it comes to his own self-proclaimed “red line.” America’s allies had to practically drag last week’s intelligence assessment out of the White House after they had already come to rest on the conclusion that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons.

If Bashar Assad breached the “red line,” then Barrack Obama stands ready to draw a new one. As the President said last week, “We cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.” Apparently the red line that was originally drawn at “seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around”, was moved to “not tolerat[ing] the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” and has now been redrawn at “the systematic use” of chemical weapons. Never mind how cynical a pronouncement it was that a year and a half into the conflict, the President drew a line with chemical weapons. That message was received in Damascus as a cart blanche to use tanks, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft—to massacre and rape at will. But now that the moment of truth has predictably arrived, the White House is in full-scale retreat.

The administration is now laying the groundwork to remain on the sideline. Obama said during his press conference, “…if we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.” Yet, so far the Obama administration has hardly lifted a finger to bring the conflict to an end—not withstanding the humanitarian aid the U.S. delivers that bears no mark or flag of the United States that might counter the perception that Washington is literally doing nothing. Lost in the administration’s urge to cajole the international community is the reality that there is only one country that matters, that we have diplomatic relations with, that it is blocking Assad’s departure: Russia, whose military complex has been arming Assad to the teeth. It’s hard to imagine how Barrack Obama intends to “mobilize” Vladimir Putin “to support what we do.” Perhaps another rousing speech with an oratory flair, or pounding that “reset” button again?

Instead, Mr. Obama is ensuring that he will never have the kind of definitive proof he claims to require by setting the bar so high it will never be reached. The prescription? He “called on the United Nations to investigate.” The inconvenient truth is that a UN team of weapons inspectors has not and will not be allowed by the Assad regime to enter Syria. That team has already been assembled; they have been cooling their heels in Cyprus since March.

The issue isn’t just about the reality that America’s credibility in foreign affairs is at stake. Obama’s waffling has made further escalation of the conflict a near certainty. Iran and North Korea will surely take note of the White House’s fuzzy red lines. And states like Israel and Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly question the value of America’s security guarantees. The real problem is that the Obama administration lacks a coherent policy in Syria now—over two years into the Syrian civil war. Absent a clear policy, no clear strategy to end the conflict has emerged, and the tactics employed have been dilatory and procedural.

While the White House keeps drawing lines with its own Etch-A-Sketch, The Telegraph is reporting that Jabhat al-Nusra, the opposition Salafi terrorist group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, is closing in almost a mile from al-Safira—home to Syria’s largest chemical weapons production facilities. Among its chief products is the sarin nerve agent. But never mind that scenario where al-Qaeda gets its hands on weapons of mass destruction. And never mind that the Assad regime might well transfer those kind of weapons to Hezbollah—an equally nefarious script. After all, the Obama administration can always redraw the red line.

Matthew RJ Brodsky is Director of Policy at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. His website is www.MatthewRJBrodsky.com.

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