President Obama may soon have to come to grips with what it means
to issue a "red line" to a foreign government.
On Tuesday, Israeli military officials said they have evidence
and are "nearly 100 percent certain" that forces of Syria's Bashar
al-Assad regime have used chemical weapons - a step Mr. Obama said
would be a game changer for the US in its policies toward Syria and
the civil war raging there. Last August, Obama declared that any use
or even "moving around" of Syria's substantial chemical weapons
stockpile would constitute a "red line" for the US - any crossing of
which "would change my calculus ... change my equation."
With the closest US ally in the region now asserting that
chemical weapons have been used, Obama will come under more pressure
to demonstrate - possibly through the use of American force - that
his "red line" was not a hollow threat, US foreign policy analysts
"If you make a flat statement like that and you don't follow it
up, then you undermine your credibility," says Lawrence Korb, a
former Pentagon official who is now a national security analyst at
the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington.
Obama has been reluctant to deepen US involvement in the Syria
war, limiting US assistance to food and supplies for refugees and
internally displaced Syrian civilians, and to nonlethal material for
the rebel fighters the US supports. But use of chemical weapons by
Mr. Assad's forces could prompt a more interventionist approach,
some analysts say: for example, direct measures by US forces to
destroy or safeguard Assad's chemical weapons. Obama could also cite
a crossed red line as justification for arming the rebels or taking
other, more robust measures to protect Syrian civilians.
Such measures might include establishing a no-fly zone over
northern Syria, a step that already has bipartisan support in
Congress, or creating "humanitarian corridors" for refugees to move
along and for getting food and other supplies to the civilian
Probably a last resort, Mr. Korb says, would be "to send in
special forces to grab the chemical weapons."
Pentagon officials said last month they were preparing a list of
calibrated measures that the president could order in the event that
chemical weapons are used. In response to the Israeli claims
Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the US "continues to
assess reports of chemical weapons use in Syria."
Last week Britain and France sent a letter to United Nations
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in which they claim to have credible
evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons more than once since