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Would the U.S. still arm a Syrian opposition that used chemical weapons?

After a concerted effort to walk back -- or at least soften -- its "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it looks as if the Obama administration may have just gotten off the hook. According to Reuters, U.N. human rights investigators now have evidence that rebel forces used sarin gas -- a revelation that, if confirmed, would vindicate the president's studied approach to the Syrian conflict and reduce the political pressure on him to act immediately.

In an interview Sunday with a Swiss-Italian television station, Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a current member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that testimony gathered by U.N. human rights researchers reveals "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas." She added: "This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities."

After the Obama administration reluctantly acknowledged on April 25 that the Syrian regime had most likely used chemical weapons, it looked as if the president had backed himself into a corner. In August 2012, Obama declared the use of chemical agents a "red line" for U.S. involvement in the conflict, later reiterating that it would be a "game changer."

How exactly the administration would respond was never made explicit, but most assumed it would trigger deeper U.S. engagement, whether by directly arming members of the opposition or instituting a no-fly zone. After all, the president warned in December: "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."

But when Britain, France, and Israel all claimed that the regime had indeed crossed the red line, the White House responded cautiously, downplaying what one official called "low-confidence assessments by foreign governments." Even after acknowledging in a letter to Congress that the U.S. intelligence community believes "with varying degrees of confidence" that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons "on a small scale," the president resolved to conduct further investigations before taking action.

The United States should not rush to judgment without "hard, effective evidence," Obama said in an April 30 press conference in which he appeared to shift responsibility for the U.S. red line to the international community. "When I said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn't a position unique to the United States...The use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. Not simply for the United States, but for the international community," he said at one point.

Despite such efforts to blur the red line -- which the New York Times reported Saturday was never intended to trap the president into "any predetermined action" -- the White House announced that it was rethinking its position on arming the rebels, a sort of least-worst option that would shield the president from charges of inviting rogue states like Iran and North Korea to defy the United States.    

My guess is that this latest report will give the administration enough space to put plans for arming the opposition on hold. After all, what business does the United States have arming rebels who are violating international law? Even if the testimony turns out to be unreliable -- something the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy points out is entirely possible -- it plays into the administration's fog-of-war narrative that calls for a measured and methodical approach to a crisis that is increasingly difficult to read.

How Israel's apparent success in striking Syrian missile sites over the weekend will impact the debate remains to be seen. Critics of the president, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, are spinning it as proof-positive that the United States could take out Syria's air defenses, easy peasy, like it did in Libya. The reality is no doubt more complicated than that. Armed with additional reasons to err on the side of caution, my bet is that the administration, which has shown no interest in getting dragged into another conflict in the Middle East, isn't about to change its mind.

AFP/Getty Images

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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.