Syria Live: “The Regime Used Chemical Weapons” Campaign

 April 25, 2013  | James Miller in EA Live, EA Middle East & Turkey, Middle East & Iran

1740 GMT: Chemical Weapons. There are two significant updates about our previous story that the US now says Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria.

First, The Danger room reports that there is clear and unambiguous evidence, based on blood samples of the victims, that sarin gas was used by the Assad regime, according to an unnamed American intelligence official:  “This is more than one organization representing that they have more than one sample from more than one attack,” the source tells Danger Room. “But we can’t confirm anything because no is really sure what’s going on in country.”

    What’s clear is that the samples are authentic, and that the weapons were almost certainly employed by the Assad regime, which began months ago mixing up quantities of sarin’s chemical precursors for an potential attack, as Danger Room first reported.

“It would be very, very difficult for the opposition to fake this. Not only would they need the wherewithal to steal it or brew it up themselves. Then they’d need volunteers who would notionally agree to a possibly lethal exposure,” the source adds.

This assessment sounds definitive, as if the US is certain sarin was used. It’s also a lot stronger rhetoric than the official statement originally leaked through Hagel.

The second development is that the White House, via a letter sent by Miguel Rodriguez, White House director for legislative affairs, to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, more clearly states the administration’s position on the incident. That letter confirms that “physiological samples” have been used to ID the weapon. But that letter also hesitates that much about the conflict is unknown. Some of this hesitancy infers that there are concerns about previous intelligence failures (Iraq WMD). A “full investigation” is warranted, “precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously.”

Then, the kicker – the letter states that in order to know for sure, the US will support a UN investigation into the incident.

Snap analysis – The UN is already prepared to investigate the claimed uses of chemical weapons in Syria, but they have been blocked by the regime. As chemical weapons are the “red line,” does anyone in the Obama administration really believe that the Assad regime will, with this new revelation, have a change of heart? Of course not. On one hand, both the letter and the leaked message indicate that the US is in possession of what it believes is the smoking gun. On the other hand, the US refuses to act alone, has no interest in involving itself militarily at the moment, and will hide behind the failure of the UN mission to buy time.

BUT, they are also working the other side of the coin. The leaked statement will infuriate the public and begin to build a case for more support for the rebels, or perhaps eventual direct military intervention. This process will be slow, potentially buying enough time so that Obama’s real wish, a negotiated settlement, can become a reality.

There is a gradual realization that the situation in Syria is decaying and becoming a regional threat. At this point, the Obama administration does not like its options for dealing with that threat directly, and so will seek to gradually step up other solutions (like arming the rebels). But the end goal, at this point, is a settlement, not a rebel victory. Moving too quickly will provide a rebel victory. Moving too slowly could be even worse.

1555 GMT: US Says Assad Has Used Chemical Weapons. Last year, Barack Obama said that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a red line – cross it, and there would be consequences:

    “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command. The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

Today, the United States says that Assad has crossed that red line.

In statements by Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, the administration is both challenging the regime and softening its rhetoric. Today he said:

    “The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” Hagel told reporters while traveling in Abu Dhabi.

Compare that statement to the bold threat issued by Barack Obama, and its clear that the US may not treat this development as the red line that was defined by Obama. “Some degree of varying confidence” means that the US is echoing statements by major allies, and the opposition which it publicly supports, that chemical weapons have been used. At the same time, it’s a statement that infers that the US will not act so boldly without total confidence. The statement also stresses that the weapons have been used on a “small scale,” downplaying the threat. The statement does say, however, that sarin, a dangerous weapon, was used, which may give the US recourse in increasing its support for the Syrian rebels.

Perhaps you could say that, according to the Obama administration, a light-pink line has been crossed by the Assad regime. But I can say, to some degree of varying confidence, that there won’t be swift consequences and Assad won’t be held accountable any time soon. This statement by Hagel is designed to buy the US time while allaying the concerns of major allies like Israel and the UK. We’ll wait to see whether the American administration clarifies their statements or their response to this new development.