(UPDATES) Syrian Chemical Weapons: Enough of a ‘Red Line’ for Obama? What Next?

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UPDATE II:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel comments on “The Red Line” during today’s Media Availability with Secretary Hagel in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Q: Mr. Secretary, does this cross the red line?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I would answer your question this way. We need all the facts. We need all the information. What I’ve just given you is what our intelligence community has said they know. As I’ve also said, they’re still assessing and they’re still looking at what happened, who was responsible, and the other specifics that we’ll need.

As to a red line, my role as secretary of defense is to give the president options on a policy issue. That’s a policy issue. And we’ll be prepared to do that at such time as the president requires options.

Q: Did you say varying degrees of confidence? Is that the phrase you used? What does that mean?

SEC. HAGEL: I did. Well, it means that we still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it.

Q: But not if?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I’ve said in the statement, in talking to our intelligence people the last couple of hours, they have a reasonable amount of confidence that some amount of chemical weapons was used.

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UPDATE I:
At bottom, a press release by American Forces Press Service’s Cheryl Pellerin on Secretary Hagel’s comments on Syria’s Chemical Weapons.

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Original Post:

While various groups and governments, including three of our allies — Britain, Israel and France — have claimed that Syria has used chemical weapons in its civil war, the United States has consistently said that the evidence presented is “inconclusive.”

According to the LA Times:

Last week, France and Britain last week asked the United Nations to investigate what they called credible — but not definitive — evidence that the regime has used small amounts of chemical weapons in recent months. On Tuesday Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel’s top military intelligence analyst, said that Syria used chemical weapons, probably a sarin-based nerve agent, in attacks on militants last month near Aleppo and Damascus. He said the assessment was based on pictures of victims foaming at the mouth and with constricted pupils.

Today, according to USA TODAY, the White House informed Congress about the chemical weapons use in letters to Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz.:

“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,” Michael Rodriguez, the White House director of Legislative Affairs, wrote.

But, USA TODAY continues, “although the White House now believes sarin was used in Syria, Rodriguez wrote that ‘our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.’”

The Obama administration has been extremely cautious and circumspect on this issue reflecting Obama’s reported reluctance for any direct involvement in the conflict.

The Christian Science Monitor:

For some, the president is simply being prudent, especially if the evidence presented so far is “inconclusive,” as a number of senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said. Obama, they add, wants to avoid a rush to judgment that turns out to be mistaken – and which could appear to the world like a repeat of the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

The Monitor quotes White House spokesman Jay Carney as recently as Tuesday saying that the US is being “extremely deliberate” in investigating and evaluating the reports of chemical weapons use. On Wednesday in Cairo, Secretary Hagel suggested the US would not be rushed to judgment by allies, saying, “Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another.” He then added, “I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions,” according to The Monitor.

Back in August, Obama said “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

Now that those standards appear to have been violated, now that there is evidence that chemical agents have been used, will it be a solid enough “red line” for Obama to “change [his] calculus”?

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefs the press in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2013. Photo: DOD

Hagel: Intel Community Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons

The U.S. intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons — specifically the nerve-agent sarin — on a small scale in that violence-torn nation, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said here tonight.

On the last evening of his five-nation inaugural trip to the Middle East as defense secretary, Hagel told reporters traveling with him that the White House delivered a letter on the topic this morning to several members of Congress.

“The intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made within the past 24 hours,” the secretary said. “I have been in close contact with senior officials in Washington since then to discuss this serious matter.”

Hagel said the United States can’t confirm the weapons’ origin, but “we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the [Bashar] Assad regime.”

The White House letter, signed by Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, on President Barack Obama’s behalf, responded to an April 24 inquiry by unidentified members of Congress. They asked, “Has the Assad regime, or Syrian elements associated with or supported by the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria since the current conflict began in March 2011?”

In response, the letter said, “our intelligence committee 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. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples.”

According to the letter, though, the chain of custody is not clear, so it’s not clear how the exposure occurred or under what conditions.
“We need to know the full story and get it right,” Hagel told reporters.

“Thus far,” according to the letter, “we believe that the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons and has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people.”

The Obama administration will remain in close consultation with you and the Congress on these matters, the letter continued. “In the interim, the administration is prepared for all contingencies so that we can respond appropriately to any confirmed use of chemical weapons, consistent with our national interests.”

“As the letter states,” Hagel said, “the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable.”

The United States has an obligation to fully investigate, including with key partners and allies and through the United Nations, evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria, the secretary added.

Over the past week, Hagel has traveled to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the military and government leaders of each country have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria, he observed.

“This subject, Syria, and in particular chemical weapons, is just part of a larger challenge in the Middle East,” Hagel said.

“It is so vitally important for our United States interests, as well as for our allies, that we work … to stabilize and secure these [Middle East] countries,” the secretary concluded, “because if this region of the world essentially gets itself into a situation where it’s ungovernable and out of control, then this will be an astoundingly huge problem for all of the world.”

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Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

13 Comments

  1. It would seem the whole world would suffer the oil repercussions of a “situation” in Syria. Back here at home, we have the McCains et al wanting Obama to release the hounds of Hell. Alot to think about, not to mention that we simply cannot afford another Middle East entanglement…not in lives and not in money.
    Our allies are going to have to get VERY involved in this one if the evidence is substantiated.

  2. Hi, Sheknows

    I share your concerns about another U.S. military action and I share with you the hope that our allies would get “very involved” if it comes to that.

    I hope that Syria will not cross that dreaded “red line” and actually use the scourge of chemical agents and weapons on its own people — or on any peoples.

    Most of us who have been in the military have seen the horrific videos and photographs of what these chemical agents and weapons can do to human beings — just terrifying!

    I can not even imagine witnessing a despot or his military using them en-masse on innocent men, women and children and us sitting on our hands worrying about oil and money. And, yes, preventing or stopping their use may cost some lives — some of our own.

  3. The red line doesn’t seem helpful. Both sides are probably using chemical weapons (or would if available). Who do we support? Both options seem deeply troubling. Perhaps the best option is support for the refugees who are fleeing and let Assad and Al-Qaeda fight it out. Similar to Clinton’s policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stay out.

  4. 1. No chemical weapons were used — as far as I know — in that “comflict.”

    2. The US certainly did take part in military “peacekeeping” “peace enforcement” operations in the region starting in 1995: JOINT ENDEAVOR, JOINT GUARD, and JOINT FORGE.

  5. DDW; Who would you support in Syria?

  6. LBJ had a surtax to pay for Vietnam. How about a GWB surtax to pay for ALL ME wars – past, present and future…

  7. HI KP,

    I don’t know if you intend this to be a “gotcha” questions, but I’ll try to answer.

    But first, back to the recent Balkan conflicts (plural).

    In my previous comment, I was actually supporting your apparent praise for Clinton’s policies on those conflicts, as he/the US and NATO were successful in both with minimal military intervention and to the chagrin of some conservatives. I was just questioning, if you will, your “staying out” statement.

    In the Yugoslavia-Kosovo “conflict” we did use military force successfully without a single US combat casualty (regrettably there were many on the other side, including the innocent)

    I mention this as part of my answer to your question as to who I would “support”, because those conflicts (especially the Bosnia-Herzegovina) were resolved with minimum military force ( and losses) on our side. I believe that with allied cooperation (as another reader mentioned) we could do the same in Syria — for example deny the Syrians the use of its air power as we have done in Libya and elsewhere.

    As to chemical weapons, I am on the side of humanity. If that sounds like a platitude, let me add that we should do everything possible to prevent the Syrians from using them to horribly maim , injure and kill their own people and to do that, you don’t have to take anyone’s side (except the innocents’).

    How?

    That is what we have our military strategists and our military for and, as I said elsewhere, that will test Hagel’s mettle.

    Added:

    And let me hastily add, before my “window” closes that, yes, there are risks to any interventions (as pointed out here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/a.....redirect=0), but as pointed out in the same article:

    “The potential for a Russian, Chinese, or Iranian backlash should not deter Washington from taking necessary military action in Syria. Middle Eastern stability is a key U.S. interest and helping Syria to the best possible soft landing is central to our security role, as is living up to our red line threat on chemical weapons use. Shrinking from that responsibility could, in fact, bolster our detractors’ self-confidence and embolden them: If Assad somehow survives, the rise in Iranian prestige and loss of ours could even prompt Moscow and Beijing, smelling blood, to up the ante against Washington. The Obama administration thus needs to think geostrategically in Syria; more Metternich than Wilson.

    If the United States acts from a position of strength — indicating our willingness to take military action — we may induce Russia and China (perhaps even Iran) to be more cooperative today, as well as in the chaotic period after the regime’s defeat. We need to share with Moscow and Beijing our thinking about Syrian day-after scenarios, including whether we could tolerate a de facto Alawite redoubt similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. Anything we can do to reassure them that we and our value system are not out to incorporate Syria after Assad would presumably help the two powers accommodate themselves to an U.S.-assisted new order in Damascus. But such reassurance would cut against the grain of all of our instincts with failed states — to jump in until they can be made whole again.

    Similarly, proceeding from a position of military readiness, we can encourage Iranian cooperation in Syria by being more open about the economic sanctions we would be willing to trade for nuclear concessions.

    The United States is already undoubtedly doing much of this talking to Moscow and Beijing, but the question remains open with what degree of clarity the administration has communicated its willingness to take risks, prioritize its needs, and deal with the devil when necessary. But above all, it must avoid the attitudes that still color much of Washington’s foreign policy thinking: that we still live in a post-1989 world, that the triumph of the West is inevitable, and that the natural evolution of states is to become stable democracies. Alas, that time has passed.”

  8. There is plenty of madness, injustice, and suffering in the world around us, but our history of military actions from the fifties to the present has taught us we need to be very smart and very cautious about how, when and where we invest our blood and treasure. The last thing we need to do is rush into another conflict without a clear grasp of the landscape, the players and realistic objectives. If we have an excess of resources to deploy in humanitrian interests how about we focus on domestic issues for a change? (yes, I know what a pipe dream that is given the state of congress) I hope Hagel grasps the importance of looking at the big picture and the long view.

  9. “we need to be very smart and very cautious about how, when and where we invest our blood and treasure.”

    Agreed. This might be just one of those times, we’ll see..

    Added:

    Eugene Robinson in am opinion piece today on Bush’s presidency and legacy had this interesting comment:

    “And it’s clear that the Bush administration did not foresee how the Iraq experience would constrain future presidents in their use of military force. Syria is a good example. Like Saddam, Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless dictator who does not hesitate to massacre his own people. But unlike Saddam, Assad does have weapons of mass destruction. And unlike Saddam, Assad has alliances with the terrorist group Hezbollah and the nuclear-mad mullahs in Iran.

    I do not advocate U.S. intervention in Syria, because I fear we might make things worse rather than better. But I wonder how I might feel — and what options Obama might have — if we had not squandered so much blood and treasure in Iraq.”

  10. Just now back. Mine was definitely not a gotcha question, DDW. Thannks for the thoughtful response. That’s what I was hoping for, because I don’t have THE answer.

    And I was praising Clinton, although I wasn’t as sure at the time. I’m also for backing humanity, but it gets very difficult to do when there are so few good options.

  11. Thanks, KP. And sorry if I ‘over-reacted.’

  12. DDW, I didn’t feel that at all. It’s an emotional subject.

    More and more it looks to me like the time for America to have any chance of successful military intervention (if it ever existed) has passed. Syria’s civil war seems to have evolved into Al-Qaida vs Hezbollah. It reminds me of the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s in that horrible things are going to happen but our men and women should stay here.

  13. That is part of the conundrum faced by Obama, his administration and the military.

    You asked previously, “who would you support in in Syria?”

    When it comes to the regime’s use of chemical weapons, obviously not the Syrian government. However, there are very bad actors in the opposition/among the rebels, also.

    And even if we feel that we have found the “good guys,” in the Middle East, the good guys of today could very well become your mortal enemies tomorrow.

    Look at our support of the opposition in Egypt during the “Arab Spring.” Look at our support of the opposition/rebels in Lybia. The same guys who pushed us to take sides in those conflicts (a la McCain,Graham, et al) accuse us of having supported the bad guy as soon as things go awry.

    McCain is now screaming for military action in Syria and when all hell breaks loose and things go awfully go wrong, he’ll blame Obama. Go figure.

    Enough ranting.

    However, I still maintain that we can not let Assad murder thousands of innocents with chemical weapons and with impunity. America still has a conscience…

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