President Obama said Tuesday in a White House news conference that he needs more time to confirm evidence that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. Obama has said that the deployment of Syria's stockpile of poison gases would violate a "red line" and trigger deeper foreign involvement in the fight to topple Assad. Republicans say Obama has the proof he needs to take action against the regime. Obama, however, says "we don't know when they were used, how they were used, or who used them." Is he just being prudent, or giving Assad a free pass?
Republican leaders, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), certainly think the time has come for the U.S. to do more, by directly arming the rebels, say, or helping establish a no-fly zone. Caution is always justified before taking drastic measures overseas, says Salman Shaikh at Foreign Policy, but the path forward became more clear last week when the Assad regime's use of deadly gases was blown open. In a letter to lawmakers, the White House said intelligence agencies believe with "varying degrees of confidence" that Syria had made limited use of the sarin nerve agent. The United Nations, Britain, France, and Israel say the same thing, Shaikh goes on. Assad is testing Obama's "red line." This should be a game changer. Obama needs to back up his words with action by going to the U.N. and mustering an international coalition to put a stop to Assad's horrific slaughter of his own people, says Shaikh.
As the administration seeks to buy time, it would do well to remember that Assad and his cabal — as well as his backers in Tehran, Lebanon, and Iraq — will be watching the United States' resolve on this issue closely. This is probably Obama's last chance to have a decisive impact on the downward spiral toward chaos in Syria and the broader region — a situation which one senior U.S. official recently described to me as "one giant Florida sink hole." [Foreign Policy]
Not everyone is convinced that Obama is moving too slowly, though. "Obama backed himself into a corner when he warned the Syrian leader that using chemical weapons would constitute a 'red line' and be a 'game changer,'" says The New York Times in an editorial. And failing to do something could be misread by "Assad as well as leaders in Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear programs are on America's radar." Still, it's foolhardy to rush in before there's "compelling documentation that the sarin gas was used in an attack by Syrian forces," and not released in an accident or some other scenario, says the Times. Nobody has offered "a coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war." Moving ahead slowly and carefully, argues the Times, is the wisest course.
If Obama has made a mistake in his response to Syria, some say, it was in drawing a "red line" in the first place. He's right to set aside that automatic trigger, and "substitute a new standard that calls for proof of 'systematic' use of chemical gases," says Leslie Gelb at The Daily Beast. We have a spotty record when it comes to WMDs. We looked the other way when Saddam Hussein had poison gas and used it to against Kurdish rebels in 1988 near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, because we wanted him to beat Tehran. Obama should be mindful of this "hypocritical history," especially since "history shows that evidence could pop up a year or so hence that the jihadi rebels planted the chemicals to foment Western military action against Damascus," adds Gelb. And the "screamers for U.S. military intervention" should take a deep breath and think, because "the real issue is what the United States can reasonably do about the horrors in Syria," which is a giant question mark:
[Obama is] right to count to 10 now before he does something irretrievably stupid. We aren't yet certain exactly what happened. We aren't confident whether taking direct military action will bring the civil war to a speedier end or make it bloodier still. And we have no idea what we would do if initial U.S. military moves fail. [Daily Beast]
And, of course, there are many Americans who believe the best path is stay out of Syria, regardless. Ed Morrissey says at The Week that Obama should just take his lumps and walk back his tough talk of a red line altogether. "The loss of credibility after a climbdown may sting..." Morrissey says, but "whatever embarrassment that may cause for the moment will pale in comparison to the trouble we could unleash by intervening once again to produce another victory for al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East. America must stay out of Syria's civil war."
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