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Why Obama Won't Move Against Assad

He fears angering Iran.

3:05 PM, Mar 22, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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It’s still unclear whether chemical weapons were used earlier this week in attacks in Syria's Aleppo province, and if so who’s responsible—Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s troops or rebel forces. The U.N. is opening an investigation, as is the White House.

Syrian state media first reported on Tuesday that it was the anti-Assad rebels who launched an attack that, according to Syria’s information minister, killed 25 and injured 86. Russia, an Assad ally, backed the regime’s account, even as the rebels claimed it was the regime that was responsible for the attack. Israeli officials initially believed that the regime employed its unconventional arsenal—Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel was “absolutely sure” of it—but now other Israeli officials seem to be walking back that assessment, uncertain that chemical weapons were used. Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. Diane Feinstein said that, based on intelligence briefings, there was a “high probability” Assad used chemical weapons. However, the White House says it sees no proof yet. As Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria though no longer based in Damascus, explained: “So far, we have no evidence which substantiates the reports that chemical weapons were used. . . . But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports.”

Of course, the White House is largely responsible for the confusion. In July the Assad regime explained that it would never use its chemical weapons arsenal against its own citizens, but only “in case of external aggression.” Since Assad has customarily described the opposition as “foreign-backed terrorists,” he was actually threatening to turn those arms on his own people. When Obama announced in August that the use of chemical weapons “would change [his] calculations” regarding actions he might take to facilitate Assad’s downfall, he effectively told Assad that, short of using chemical weapons, the Syrian president was free to dispatch with his enemies in any way he saw fit. Second, by making the use of chemical weapons a central issue, the administration didn’t draw a redline but rather designed a mousetrap in which it has now ensnared itself.

Paradoxically, Obama’s warning enhanced Assad’s prestige even as the Syrian leader was starting to lose large parts of the territory that he nominally governs from Damascus. Not only did the White House tell Assad not to use his unconventional arsenal, but also that it expected him to control it. When the White House reached out to Assad in December and allegedly prevented him from launching a chemical weapons attack, it showed that it believes Assad will remain an indispensable interlocutor as long as he has chemical weapons at his disposal. Even as the administration has repeatedly said that Assad has lost “legitimacy,” because it has expressed its fears of chemical weapons so publicly, it has effectively legitimized him as an interlocutor simply because he has taken his country hostage.

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