Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Chemical Weapons in Syria? What Obama's High Bar for Proof Could Mean

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Chemical Weapons in Syria? What Obama's High Bar for Proof Could Mean

Article excerpt

The US reluctance to join with three key allies - Britain, France, and now Israel - in concluding that Syria's Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons in his country's civil war confirms President Obama's consistent wariness about US intervention in the two-year-old conflict.

Beyond that point, however, former officials and analysts are split over why Mr. Obama is so cautious about the issue - he even refused to answer a reporter's question on the topic Tuesday - and what the apparently high bar the administration has set for evidence of chemical weapons use means.

"It's a hard call as to whether the administration is trying to avoid something, or if they just don't have the evidence," says Wayne White, a former State Department official with experience in Middle East intelligence.

Obama has said repeatedly since last August that Syria's use of chemical weapons is a US "red line" and would be a "game changer" for the US. But now some critics say the president's caution suggests a moving or "fuzzy" red line.

For some, the president is simply being prudent, especially if the evidence presented so far is "inconclusive," as a number of senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said. Obama, they add, wants to avoid a rush to judgment that turns out to be mistaken - and which could appear to the world like a repeat of the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the US is being "extremely deliberate" in investigating and evaluating the reports of chemical weapons use. And on Wednesday in Cairo, Secretary Hagel suggested the US would not be rushed to judgment by allies, saying, "Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another." He then added, "I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions."

But for others, the reason Obama is setting the bar high - in a situation where incontrovertible evidence could remain very difficult to come by - is because he has no desire to ratchet up US involvement in the Syrian conflict unless forced to.

The danger of this approach, critics say, is that it encourages an increasingly desperate President Assad to test the limits of US reluctance - perhaps even with limited, hard-to-prove use of some chemical weapons.

And even if some isolated use of chemical weapons is proved, some analysts say, Obama is still unlikely to intervene in Syria in a manner that could tip the scales in the conflict.

"Even if CW [chemical weapons] were used, [the response] will depend a bit on how much and what we're talking about," says Mr. White, the former State Department official.

If chemical weapons use is proven "there will have to be some response from the administration," he adds, "but unless it's indiscriminate use, I don't see us doing something like a no-fly zone that could really make a difference. …

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