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Obama’s Meaningless ‘Red Line’?

8:55 PM, Apr 25, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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The Obama administration now believes that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons. Today the White House released a letter explaining that the American “intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specially the chemical agent sarin.”

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Now that Assad has crossed an Obama redline, will the administration’s Syria policy get tougher? Don’t count on it. Obama announced last summer that the use of chemical weapons “would change my calculations significantly.” Britain, France and Israel have all reported within the last two weeks that Assad used chemical weapons as recently as March and likely more than once. But the administration still wanted more proof.

“Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this week about the reports filed by the security services of American allies. Even earlier, in December, some U.S. officials believed that the Syrians had used its unconventional arsenal against its opponents, but again the administration found no conclusive proof.

It is very unlikely that the administration is now going to find sufficiently compelling evidence, because the White House has designed its conditions so that they would be virtually impossible to meet, evidently because it does not want to do anything to bring down Assad. In a conference call this afternoon, a senior Obama administration official explained that the White House is “pressing for a comprehensive U.N. investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place in association with these reports of the use of chemical weapons.” That investigation, said the official, “needs to have credible access in order to ascertain exactly what took place.” 

First of all, there is already an ongoing investigation of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but the U.N. team can’t get “credible access” or any access at all because the Syrian regime won’t allow it into the country. The investigative unit has been “twiddling its thumbs” in Cyprus for more than a month. “There's no agreement on access yet," one U.N. diplomat explained several weeks ago. "The inspectors won't be deploying until there's agreement on access and other modalities." The inspectors are unlikely ever to be deploying because there is no reason for Assad to grant access to U.N. investigators.

But that’s no problem, says the White House. “Even without that investigation,” says the White House official, “we're already working with the Syrian opposition, who can help us in corroborating reports and gathering evidence.” The Syrian opposition will provide whatever help it can, but as the administration surely knows, this assistance will not be seen as “credible”—neither by Assad allies like Russia, nor even by the administration itself.

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