Obama Administration Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons

The “red line” that the Obama Administration has talked about with regard to the civil war in Syria appears to have been crossed:

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. intelligence has concluded “with some degree of varying confidence,” that the Syrian government has used sarin gas as a weapon in its 2-year-old civil war, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.

Hagel, speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi, said the White House has informed two senators by letter that, within the past day, “our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.”

“It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel said.

No information was made public on what quantity of chemical weapons might have been used, or when or what casualties might have resulted.

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” in the U.S. position on intervening in the Syrian civil war, and the letter to Congress reiterates that the use or transfer of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line for the United States.” However, the letter also hints that a broad U.S. response is not imminent.

White House legislative director Miguel Rodriguez, who signed the letter, wrote that “because the president takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria.”

The letters went to Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.

The assessment, Rodriguez says, is based in part on “physiological samples.”

He also said the U.S. believes that the use of chemical weapons “originated with the Assad regime.” That is consistent with the Obama administration’s assertion that the Syrian rebels do not have access to the country’s stockpiles.

It’s also being reported that Secretary of State Kerry told reporters at the Capitol today that the Administration is aware of two instances where chemical weapons, presumably the Sarin referenced above, were used by the Syrian regime.

The question, of course, is what the United States does now. As Dave Schuler explained yesterday, the danger of a “red line” like the one the Administration put in place here is that it tends to back us into a corner. If we do nothing, it calls into question our resolve in the face of provocations from other nations such as Iran and North Korea. However, it’s entirely unclear what we can do that would not draw us into a conflict that we really don’t need to be getting involved in. So, what, exactly, does President Obama do here? Because it doesn’t seem like we’ve got any good options.

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FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Quick Takes,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s not just that we don’t want to get involved in it. It’s that it’s not clear that our involvement would actually do much good. Yes, we could bring Bashar al-Assad’s regime down. What then?

    It’s the same problem we had in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.

    Moammar Qaddafi is gone but Libya is still a mess. I’m in no position to say whether the Libyan people are better or worse off than they were if we hadn’t kept Qaddafi from opposing the rebels. The people of Mali probably aren’t better off.

  2. legion says:

    Well, that makes it “put up or shut up” time… I don’t like the idea of getting involved here any more than I did Libya, but I fear the long-term impact of not backing up our words some way will greatly outweigh the cost in blood and treasure of doing something – anything – to get Assad out.

  3. stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Libya may be a mess by the standards of the modern USA, but its arguably no more a mess than the American colonies were during the time of the Articles of Confederation. .Libya may not be an instant success but is any nation immediately after a revolution? Let’s be a bit more realistic about the time it takes to rebuild from a revolt. From the point of international relations, Libya under a new pro-Western regime is vastly preferrable to Libya under Gaddafi.

    As for Syria, it was really naive to believe that we can really be unconcerned with a nation that borders on Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Like it or not, Syria is smack dab in the middle of a strategically important region. From a pure realist POV, the USA have to be interested in who will rule in Syria, even if you don’t care anything about the Syrian people.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    It’s not just that we don’t want to get involved in it. It’s that it’s not clear that our involvement would actually do much good. Yes, we could bring Bashar al-Assad’s regime down. What then?

    Exactly.

    I’d also like to take the opportunity to gripe about the “WMD” label, and the inclusion of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are pretty bad WMDs. They are not nukes, and they’re nowhere near being nukes.

    So let’s say this is correct and the Assad regime used them. This is worse than bombs, artillery, tanks, etc? And we’re going to fix it how?

    I understand Israelis being jittery – they’re right next door. And, thus, I get our government watching. What I don’t get is setting up red lines that make it sound like we’ll intervene if X happens. That’s a good way to get sucked into something.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    To clarify, by “bad WMDs” I mean they’re not all that good at mass destruction. They’re basically nothing like nukes.

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    Someone once wrote:

    Intelligence is completely irrelevant to major policy decisions. Such decisions are matters of judgment, and knowledgeable, ordinary citizens are just as capable of making these determinations as political leaders allegedly in possession of “secret information.” Such “secret information” is almost always wrong — and major decisions, including those pertaining to war and peace, are made entirely apart from such information in any case.

    The second you start arguing about intelligence, you’ve given the game away once again. This is a game the government and the proponents of war will always win. By now, we all surely know that if they want the intelligence to show that Country X is a “grave” and “growing” threat, they will find it or manufacture it. So once you’re debating what the intelligence shows or fails to show, the debate is over. The war will inevitably begin.

    What evidence do we have of Syrian chemical weapons use? Or should we trust our leaders, all of them honorable, yet again with secret information?

  7. Moosebreath says:

    @stonetools:

    “As for Syria, it was really naive to believe that we can really be unconcerned with a nation that borders on Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.”

    4 out of 5, anyway (Iraq and Jordan border, not Syria and Saudi Arabia).

  8. Mikey says:

    I think the administration’s solution will be to set the standard of confirmation high enough that it won’t be reachable.

    That’s just my gut feeling, though, which could be wrong. But I hope not.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Libya may be a mess by the standards of the modern USA, but its arguably no more a mess than the American colonies were during the time of the Articles of Confederation.

    The Americans of 1780 were setting off car bombs in front of the French embassy and militias were duking it out over who’d rule the country?

  10. @Rob in CT:

    Yes, but there have been strictures against the use of chemical weapons in international law since the end of World War One. Heck, even Hitler and the Soviets didn’t use them during the worst of the fighting on the Eastern Front during World War II.

  11. legion says:

    @Rob in CT: @Doug Mataconis:
    It’s also difficult to tell much from the lack of details… as sketchy as the reports sound, I’m not convinced this isn’t a false-positive or even an accidental release of some noxious chemical (as opposed to deliberate use of a particular weapon). Hagel specifies Sarin, but there’s an awful lot of caveats around it…

  12. osborne says:

    U.S. intelligence has concluded “with some degree of varying confidence,”

    As a non american is this the same US intelligence that a few years ago was absolutely convinced that Iraq had WMDs?

    i guess US intelligence can be depended on upon to come up with evidence for whatever suits the current needs of the US.

    Yes, but there have been strictures against the use of chemical weapons in international law since the end of World War One

    well expect when Iraq was fighting Iran in the 1980’s in which case a blind eye could be turned.

  13. legion says:

    @osborne:

    As a non american is this the same US intelligence that a few years ago was absolutely convinced that Iraq had WMDs?

    Bingo. I think this is why Obama is (rightly) moving slowly on this. But he _does_ appear to be moving, gathering support, etc., as opposed to trying to weasel out of it. It’s also why the Right Wing Nutjob Brigade will immediately start banging the drums to invade…