Last week, we learned of a secret State Department assessment that forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had recently used chemical weapons. The State Department cable, signed by the U.S. consul in Istanbul and based on interviews with doctors, defectors from the Syrian Army, and activists, made what one unnamed administration official called a “compelling case” that the Syrian military had used Agent 15, or BZ gas, in Homs last month against the Sunni-majority opposition. Nonetheless, within 24 hours, the State Department challenged the news report and the cable’s conclusion, stating that it “found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used.”
It’s hardly surprising the administration was eager to paper over a story that showed the cracks in its jerrybuilt Syria policy. After all, just last August Obama pledged that “seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons” by Assad would mean the Syrian dictator had crossed a “red line” and would trigger a U.S. response. If Assad had already used those weapons, that would mean Obama blinked.
The leak itself showed that even inside the administration there is a gnawing suspicion that the president’s Syria policy has come up short. The president has let a humanitarian crisis grow to enormous proportions during the last 24 months. Further, Obama has squandered an opportunity to advance American interests by toppling Iran’s only Arab ally, and has imperiled U.S. allies on Syria’s borders by failing to contain a crisis that is spilling over into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and may cause trouble for Israel as well.
The White House had previously bragged that in December, via private messages from Obama through the Russians and other interlocutors, it stopped the regime in Damascus from using chemical weapons. One senior defense official told the New York Times, “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war.”
But in congratulating itself, the administration unwittingly underscored the fact that it could have intervened at any point over the last two years, during which time Assad has slaughtered more than 60,000 victims. Last week alone, Assad’s forces killed more than 100 people in Homs, who were shot, stabbed, and incinerated. Should we congratulate the Obama administration that they weren’t gassed?
Also last week, 80 were killed and more than 150 wounded in a regime airstrike on the University of Aleppo. At one time it seemed that the use of fixed-wing aircraft against civilians, like the students and displaced persons camped out on the university grounds, constituted an American red line. After all, the difference between Qaddafi and Assad, said Secretary of State Clinton in explaining why the United States had joined the NATO action against the former and was content to sit back and watch the latter, was that the Libyan dictator was using airstrikes against his own people.
One problem with Obama’s statement on chemical weapons last summer was that he was sending a message to Assad that carnage up to that supposed red line was acceptable. But the red line itself was problematic. Given the limited flow of information coming out of Syria, it was always going to be difficult to confirm the use of chemical weapons. The conflicting signals from the State Department last week made the issue plain. “When this particular message came in from consulate Istanbul,” said a State Department spokesperson, we “concluded at the time that we couldn’t corroborate it; we haven’t been able to corroborate it since either.”
Sure, the opposition might submit evidence that they’d been gassed, but how would anyone know if they were telling the truth? How would you verify their stories, or authenticate YouTube videos of people vomiting, choking, and dying? The Syrian rebels have an interest, after all, in bringing the United States into the conflict.
In any case, as outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta explained earlier this month, it turns out the United States would only send in troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile after Assad fell. The concern, said Panetta “is what steps does the international community take to make sure that when Assad comes down, that there is a process and procedure to make sure we get our hands on securing those sites?” In other words, as long as Assad is still in power, the White House is not going to do anything about his arsenal.
And even if it wanted to, said chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, how would it know when to move against chemical weapons? “You would have to have such clarity of intelligence,” said Dempsey, “persistent surveillance, you’d have to actually see it before it happened, and that’s—that’s unlikely, to be sure.” Therefore, said Dempsey, “The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.”
In sum: The White House wouldn’t know if Assad were about to use chemical weapons, couldn’t be sure if he had used chemical weapons, and in any case isn’t going to do anything about chemical weapons until Assad leaves. In reality then, the president has no red lines for Assad.
Worse yet is what Obama’s empty bluster on Syria portends for the administration’s Iran policy. Obama says he means not to contain the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons, but to prevent Tehran from acquiring them. Actions, however, speak louder than words. His new cabinet picks, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan, are all longtime advocates of engagement with rogue regimes—without any fallback plan in the predictable event that talking to the mullahs comes to nothing, as it has for more than 30 years. With his Syria policy, Obama is in effect telling the Islamic Republic that if engagement doesn’t work, if sanctions don’t make the regime reconsider, then he’ll do nothing to stop them.