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Disappearing Red Lines

Obama’s mess of a Syria policy.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By LEE SMITH
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In his April 30 White House press conference, President Obama explained that there’s evidence chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but “we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, and who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody.”

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What he meant is that maybe it wasn’t Bashar al-Assad’s regime that gassed its enemies. Maybe rebels lifted some chemical arms from Assad’s massive stockpile. As if to substantiate Obama’s conjecture, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al-Jaafari at roughly the same time as Obama’s press conference accused the rebels of a chemical weapons attack near the Turkish border.

It’s not the first time the Syrian government has accused its domestic enemies of using Damascus’s own unconventional arsenal against civilians. In March, Assad spokesmen contended that rebels had launched a chemical weapons attack against Khan al-Assal, a town in Aleppo Province, that killed 25 people.

Still, the timing of the regime’s latest claims should embarrass the White House. It gives the appearance that Obama and a ruling clique that has racked up a death toll approaching 100,000 are working two different ends of the same psychological operations campaign. Obama says he’s confused about Syria’s chemical weapons, and Assad lends a hand by sowing doubt about the author of the chemical attacks in Syria. In one regard, Obama and Assad really do share the same goal, albeit for different reasons​—​they both want to ensure that the United States sits on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war.

Syria analyst Tony Badran sees in all this a “cynical two-step,” in which Assad and Obama pick up on each other’s cues and send reinforcing messages. Writing in NOW Lebanon, Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, shows how since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, the Syrian regime has furnished plentiful justifications for the United States not advancing its regional interests by helping to topple Iran’s chief Arab ally. Among other reasons, Badran writes, there is fear that the fall of the Damascus regime would endanger Israel, that it would threaten Syria’s minority communities, that it would empower Sunni radicals allied with al Qaeda, and that those same Sunni radicals might wind up seizing the regime’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.

At his press conference, Obama claimed that White House policy from the beginning of the uprising was to pressure Assad to step down. The truth is that Obama waited for five months before making any such statement and has sent mixed signals since then about whether he really wants Assad to go. The very red line Obama drew last August was just such a mixed signal. The White House warned Assad against using chemical weapons, but also insisted that he must keep them under his control. The problem of course is that Assad cannot control his chemical weapons arsenal unless he is firmly in control of his country. Assad could also see that the administration’s warnings were couched in heavily qualified language, which signaled to him that in comparison with a domestic uprising determined to kill him, the White House was a much less serious adversary that he could risk ignoring.

For instance, after a State Department cable showed that Assad might have used chemical weapons in December, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what the administration doubtless considered a strong warning. “I am not going to telegraph in any specifics,” said Clinton, “what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people.” The concept of “credible evidence,” it is now obvious, gives the White House wiggle room to do nothing. If Obama’s red line showed Assad that Americans were ambivalent about his fate, Clinton’s reaction told him they were bluffing.

The administration doubted that Assad would ever be “crazy” enough to use chemical weapons; after all, Obama had warned him of the consequences. Here the White House misunderstood power politics as it is played by someone fighting for his rule, his community, and his life. The Assad regime has lost control of much of Syria; in the event it has to abandon Damascus, plan B is to make a run for the Alawite homeland in Syria’s coastal mountains. The continued existence of the Alawite minority would then depend on its ability to defend that enclave from the Sunni Arab majority the rebels are drawn from. By using chemical weapons in at least a limited fashion, Assad could show that he would open the gates of hell should the rebels chase him all the way to his coastal redoubt. That would be not “crazy” from his perspective, but rational.

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