The problem with Obama's 'unscripted' Syria red line

The New York Times has another huge story on Obama's "red line" on the Syrian regime's possible use of chemical weapons, filled with juicy details and anonymous quotes from U.S. officials. One of them, referring to Obama's initial red-line comments in August, tells the paper:

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.” 

Another one: 

Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

Ooph. Here's the problem with those remarks, however. After Obama initially laid down his red line -- the key words of which were "a whole bunch" -- various administration officials repeated them, sometimes losing the qualifier entirely. Here, for instance, is Vice President Joe Biden on March 4:

Because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use or the transfer of the those weapons.

And here's Obama 17 days later:

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 by Friday, April 26, the qualifier was back. "A whole bunch" had become "systematic," as my colleague Josh Rogin noted:

Obama said that if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot stand by and permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."

So the nuance -- only the use or transfer of "a whole bunch" of chemical weapons would trigger a U.S. response -- was in Obama's original comments. It disappeared, and then it returned as "systematic."

What's going on here? I suspect that the United States wants to deter Bashar al-Assad from launching a mass-casualty attack using chemical weapons, but isn't prepared to make him pay a real price for smaller-scale incidents. U.S. officials often insist that the president doesn't bluff. But I'm not so sure about that, and it seems Assad is willing to call him on it.


That awkward moment when ... Israel launches airstrikes in Syria

Syrian Facebook pages are reporting a series of massive explosions in Damascus, as are the Syrian regime's media outlets. A video claiming to be of these explosions can be seen here:

Given the size of the blasts, and the news that Israeli jets earlier this week struck a shipment of Iranian missles thought to be headed for Hezbollah, everyone is assuming that Israel is behind these strikes as well. Syrian state TV is claiming that Israel hit a "research center," while opposition Facebook pages are saying that several elite units on Mt. Qassioun, overlooking Damascus, were the targets. (Hezbollah's al-Manar TV station is claiming an Israeli jet was shot down, but that seems unlikely.)

Israeli officials are keeping characteristically mum, but it seems plausible that they would have followed up their previous, successful strike with another one aimed at further degrading the Syrian regime's capabilities. Because it's so difficult, not to mention risky, to destroy chemical-weapons stocks from the air, the next-best thing is to take out Assad's means of delivering them. And Mt. Qassioun is reportedly where many of the Syrian regime's best missiles are kept.

If it was indeed Israel, wow, this is awkward for the Syrian opposition. The regime will seek to exploit the raids to tie the rebels to the Zionist entity, after spending two years painting them as an undifferentiated mass of "terrorist gangs." (Syrian television is already testing out this line, according to Reuters: "The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army.")

But the propaganda can cut both ways. The rebels can point to the Israeli attacks as yet more evidence that Assad's army is for attacking Syrians, not defending the country. It's not clear to me which argument will carry the day.

The strikes also promise to hypercharge the debate over Syria in the United States. Advocates of  intervention will ask: If Syrian air defenses are so tough, as U.S. officials have been saying, why was Israel able to breach them so easily? Of course, a no-fly zone is a much more difficult and risky endeavor than a one-off raid, but you can expect that important distinction to get blurred.

There's also a message here for Iran, whose nuclear program Israel has vowed to destroy if the Iranians cross Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's red line. Again, taking out Iran's fortified and far-flung nuclear facilities would be vastly more challenging than hitting a few warehouses in nearby Damascus. And U.S. officials doubt that Israel has the capability to do more than temporarily set back Iran's program. But the intended lesson here for Tehran (and Washington) is clear: Israel will defend itself when threatened, and we mean what we say.