How Should Obama Respond to Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons?

Military analysis.
April 25 2013 6:13 PM

Seeing Red

If Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people and crossed Obama’s red line, how should the president respond?

A man runs amongst rubble as smoke rises from buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, March 12, 2013.
A man runs among buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet

Photo by Hamid Khatib/Reuters

It seemed for a moment today that we might soon be at war with Syria.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters that, according to new intelligence analyses, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has likely used chemical weapons, specifically sarin, against rebel forces.

At least five times in the last eight months, President Obama has declared that any such use of chemical weapons would cross “a red line.” These are fighting words, or very close to them. If a president describes a possible action as “crossing a red line,” then does nothing about it, no future declaration of red lines—no threat to respond with force to some horrible action—will be taken seriously by anyone, friend or foe.

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Obama has said as much while issuing his “red line” warnings against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “There would be enormous consequences,” he said on one occasion. It would mark “a game-changer from our perspective,” he said on another. It would be “totally unacceptable” and Assad would be “held accountable,” he warned on still another.

So, with Hagel’s statement this morning, has the red line been crossed? And what is Obama going to do about it?

The White House response this afternoon: Whoa, wait, not so fast.

Hagel’s remarks, while laced in stern tones, noted that U.S. intelligence agencies had made this assessment “with varying degrees of confidence.” A letter written by the White House congressional liaison, to various senators, re-emphasized this caveat.

A senior White House official, speaking on a conference call with reporters, went further. He allowed that there is “physiological evidence” of sarin in Syria (whether on people or soil, he didn’t say), but before declaring that the red line has been crossed, the president needs more facts, especially concerning the “chain of custody”—that is, who released the sarin and did they do so deliberately. It’s likely that Assad or some element of his regime is responsible, the official allowed, but “likely” isn’t enough. Given the seriousness of the issue, and the “recent history” of mistaken intelligence assessments (a clear reference to the false WMD alarms that justified the invasion of Iraq), this president needs more. He needs conclusions reached “with certainty.”

It doesn’t take a war hawk to wonder if this standard might be raising the bar too high. In the annals of intelligence analysis, very few assessments have ever been offered with certainty. And the notion of determining the “chain of custody” with certainty—some proof that the traces of sarin found in the blood samples of Syrian rebels (as intelligence reports now indicate) definitely came from weapons fired by forces loyal to President Assad—is also a bit of a stretch.

At the same time, it’s hard to blame Obama for demanding a high bar of evidence. Stating that Assad has used chemical weapons would mean that he did cross that dread red line, and that would mean Obama now has to do something about it. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that he has to send in the Marines, but he probably would have to take some action that could easily escalate to sending in the Marines or special forces, jet fighters, cruise missiles, or armed drones—that could very quickly mean war.