The three key words of Obama’s ‘red line’ on Syria

The White House has long insisted that President Barack Obama's "red line" that would trigger ... something ... on Syria is crystal clear.

But as my Washington Post colleague Max Fisher notes, it's about as clear as mud. Obama first said in August: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that 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."

Many have interpreted this line to mean that if Assad moved or used chemical weapons, Obama would act. And on several occasions, the president or other U.S. officials have made more aggressive statements. Here's Obama on March 21:

I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders:  We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists.  The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.

But it seems to me that the key words in Obama's August statement were "a whole bunch." And if you read between the lines of the White House's letter to several senators today, that still seems to be the real red line, assuming it actually exists, because the letter stresses that the purported use in question was, or may have been, "on a small scale."

And even if the White House does go ahead and decide that Obama's murky, pinkish-reddish-orange line has in fact been crossed, it doesn't seem prepared to do much about it. The plan is to press for a United Nations investigation of the alleged chemical-weapons use, not to fire up the B-52s. The odds of Assad letting that happen are extremely low, not to mention the time it would take for an investigation to reach a clear conclusion one way or the other. And even if an investigation does conclude that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people, does anyone still think Russia and China are going to dump Assad and authorize some kind of response through the U.N. Security Council?

Now, maybe all this murkiness is defensible and sincere, and certainly the American people aren't clamoring for another U.S. intervention in the Middle East, even though many in Washington are. But the point is, maybe the game hasn't changed as much as today's news reports would have us believe.


Strategically, why would Syria have used chemical weapons on a 'small scale'?

The United States now says it has evidence that Syria used chemical weapons on a "small scale" -- an announcement that follows similar declarations by the French, British, Israelis, and Qataris. But the question no one has been able to answer is this: Why would Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons on a small scale after repeated warnings from Barack Obama that any use of chemical weapons would be a "game-changer" for the United States?

It's a puzzle that baffled Ralf Trapp, a consultant and renowned expert on chemical weapons, who spoke with Foreign Policy over the phone from Geneva. "From a military perspective, it doesn't make sense to use chemical weapons bit by bit," he said. "Why would the regime just put it on a grenade here or a rocket launcher there? It's just not the way you'd expect a military force to act."

But that's precisely the scale at which the United States says Assad is using chemical weapons. "The U.S. intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale, specifically the chemical agent sarin," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi.  

From Trapp's perspective, the tactical purpose of chemical weapons is to inflict mass casualties. Since Assad is more than capable of killing rebels in small doses, why would he deploy a small amount of chemical weapons when it runs the risk of inviting a U.S. military intervention?

It's obvious by Assad's attempts to court U.S. media that he desperately wants the United States to butt out of Syria's civil war. In today's New York Times, Anne Barnard gives a fascinating window into Syria's charm offensive to convince reporters that U.S. support for the rebels is against its own interests. Additionally, Russia, an ally Syria can't afford to lose, has also warned the regime against using chemical weapons.

Tactically speaking, using chemical weapons on a limited scale could instill fear in the populace. But is that benefit for the Assad regime worth the cost of provoking the United States and angering Russia?