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.”
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.
The administration believes that “any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime.” And yet Assad has repeatedly claimed it was the opposition that used chemical weapons, most recently in March. Since the opposition has an interest in falsifying evidence that might draw in the United States on its side, the White House has to admit there’s a possibility that it wasn’t Assad. Indeed, there can be no other reason for the investigation except for the fact that the White House believes there is a possibility it wasn’t Assad, an option that it has entertained previously. Obama’s warnings about using and transferring chemical weapons were directed not only at the Syrian tyrant but also the “radical forces” among Assad’s opponents who might get their hands on Syria’s stockpile. Who’s to say it wasn’t the opposition, or its “radical forces,” that used sarin back in March, just to frame Assad?
From the administration’s perspective, this is exactly why we need to get to the bottom of what happened in Syria, with a U.N. team on the ground with “credible access”—even though Assad will never grant such access as long as he is in power.
Why, one might wonder, does the administration even need a U.N. investigation if three of our closest allies, along with our own intelligence community, have already said they believe Assad used chemical weapons? The White House maintains it’s because Obama doesn’t want to make a mistake like Bush did by invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence. This showed, as the administration official put it today, that “intelligence assessments are not alone sufficient.”
The fact that the Russians keep hammering away at this same theme—the Americans want to invade Syria on false pretenses just like they did with Iraq—actually serves the administration’s purposes. What seems lost on Russian President Vladimir Putin is the fact that Obama wants nothing to do with Syria—which is precisely why he is “pressing” the U.N. for an investigation. France and Britain, our two closest allies on the Security Council, think Assad used sarin, so does Israel, while our regional partners, from Turkey to the Gulf states, all want the United States to topple Assad. The White House handed the investigation over to the U.N. because it assumes that Moscow will play the same hand it has for the last two years in Syria—blocking the Americans and protecting Assad.
If Putin really wanted to hurt Obama, he would add his KGB-inflected voice to that of the British, French, Israeli and American intelligence assessments and watch the American president squirm. “Definitely Assad used sarin, maybe worse,” Putin might say. “Mr. Obama, isn’t that your redline”?
Instead Putin will play to type as a thug so that when in the coming months allies and domestic critics wonder why Obama still won’t do anything to bring down Assad, even after it seems he crossed the administration’s redline by using chemical weapons, Obama can throw it all on Moscow. Putin’s got my hands tied at the U.N., Obama can explain. And you know those Russians—so cynical.