Friday, April 26, 2013

Bad chemistry in Washington

Admire the Obama administration for its doggedness in redefining crises overseas to ensure that the United States does not get involved. The latest example is the American admission that chemical weapons were used last March in Syria, near Aleppo as well as in Homs and Damascus, most probably by the Syrian army.

The disclosure came with caveats allowing Washington to downplay any response. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, the White House noted that U.S. intelligence agencies had “assess[ed] with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” 

This came after Israeli officials earlier this week had reached a similar conclusion. Itai Brun, who heads the research division of Israel’s army intelligence service, declared, “To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months.”

Another Israeli general echoed that view, suggesting that a “sarin-like” chemical had been employed, probably on five occasions.

Earlier, there were reports that the United Kingdom and France informed the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, last March that soil samples and interviews with victims indicated that chemical weapons had indeed been used in Syria.

Confirming all this is important, because President Barack Obama has said that the use of such weapons would be a “game changer” and could prompt American intervention in Syria. Yet even after the Levin letter, U.S. officials continued to affirm that they needed to corroborate the information. And reference to the “small scale” use of chemical weapons seemed a craven attempt by the administration to highlight the purportedly limited nature of the crime.

Such dissembling was already evident when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel refused to cede ground on the matter after the Israeli generals had made their views public. “Suspicions are one thing,” Hagel told journalists. “Evidence is another.” Secretary of State John Kerry, in Brussels for NATO meetings on Syria this week, also waffled, noting that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “was not in a position to confirm” what his generals had said.

Obama is understandably reluctant to be drawn into a war that is increasingly vicious and complicated. But the president is the one who had made chemical weapons use his red line, perhaps hoping that Russia would prevent Bashar al-Assad’s regime from resorting to such weapons on the battlefield. If so, that showed a poor reading of the relationship between Assad and Moscow.

Assad has long had the Russians’ number. He knows they must look the other way on his transgressions, because their strategy is to keep him in office whatever the cost; or, at the most, use his negotiated departure as leverage to safeguard their Syrian interests and allies. Since Assad has given no indication that he intends to step down, the Russians have bolstered his regime whatever he does, and have played a significant role in organizing its military operations.

The repeated use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was, in part, a way of testing the American reaction. And what they’ve seen must be greatly reassuring: an administration looking for shelter in the fine print, not at all intent on imposing its prohibitions. 

It is interesting that Obama’s warnings against the use of weapons of mass destruction, when he made them, were offered less out of solidarity with the Syrian people than to reassure Israel. Washington’s concern with Israel explains Obama’s refusal to arm the foes of the Assad regime, fearing that Israel might become their next target.  

Syrian officials have insisted that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons, pointing to the fact that Syrian troops were exposed to chemicals in the village of Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo, on March 19. Intelligence officials in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, dismiss this, believing the soldiers were affected by weapons fired from their own side. The UN has tried to send a team to Syria to investigate the incident, but the Syria government has refused to allow them access to sites other than Khan al-Asal.

Today, Obama’s credibility is on the line, and the dependability of the United States’ commitment to curtailing the employment of weapons of mass destruction. That the Obama administration wants to be careful in reaching a conclusion is defensible, but the impression today is not that it is after the truth in Syria, but that it is only looking for ways to avoid the consequences of the truth.

Obama still has no cohesive Syrian policy. American troops on the ground is a bad idea, but there are options short of that that the president has made no effort to advance. Russia will soon be on the defensive, backing a man who uses weapons of mass destruction against his own population. This can be exploited diplomatically, and if Obama wants to avoid a risky American military commitment, he will have to push Moscow hard. But for now, the president awaits a UN evaluation, which buys him time to review his options.

Whatever course Obama decides, the worst thing the administration can do is to continue to show that it is looking for an exit from its stated policy. If Obama never had any intention of upholding his line in the sand in Syria, he shouldn’t have drawn it in the first place.

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