It would seem to add up to certain U.S. military action: On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed the findings of a White House letter to congressional leaders that said the United States now believes “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin." That finding appears to be a direct violation of the “red line” for action that President Obama set last year and which he reaffirmed last month, when on a trip to Israel he declared that “the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”
In truth, the same game is still going on, and the administration appears to be equivocating over a response while all the “facts” are established. “We want to continue to investigate above and beyond those intelligence estimates,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday afternoon, in order to gain “a definitive judgment for whether a red line has been crossed.”
Hagel was careful to stress that the intelligence finding came “with varying degrees of confidence,” and administration officials say they still need to investigate further the “chain of custody” of the chemical weapons. Right now, the White House said, “we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Even France, which has been the most aggressive Western nation in urging a military response, continued to indicate on Thursday that it did not have firm evidence of chemical weapons use.
Sarin, a deadly nerve agent, was believed to have been used by Saddam Hussein during his 1988 chemical weapons assault on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which left nearly 5,000 dead, as well as by the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo in Japan in two attacks in the mid-1990s that killed 21 people.
If proof is established, among the response options that have been discussed, Obama administration officials say, is a no-fly zone for some rebel controlled areas, preventing airborne attacks by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and “targeted operations” against chemical weapons depots. “All options are on the table,” the administration official said.
But the Obama administration was willing to issue only a limited warning to Assad on Thursday. "Were he to undertake any additional use, he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community," the administration official said. "We are going to be methodical, rigorous and relentless in gathering the relevant information and putting it together so we can establish exactly what happened."
Some U.S. hawks called for immediate action. “I hope that the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this bloodletting and massacre and that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to the people in the resistance who we trust,” Sen. John McCain said. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., an Obama ally, issued a statement saying the administration's credibility was now at stake if it didn't act soon.
But others on Capitol Hill, like Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., were more cautious. “If it comes to the use of military force, before the president takes any action to commit U.S. forces to any effort in Syria or elsewhere, I expect him to fully consult with the Senate and seek an authorization for the use of military force,” said Corker.
Even as it gradually steps up aid to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the administration remains very leery of getting directly involved in Syria despite the horrific tally—more than 70,000 dead in two years. The administration’s central fear is that it may end up aiding another takeover by the forces of political Islam. In Syria it appears to be the better-organized Islamist groups are making the most rapid military advances, in particular Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian rebel force that may have ties to al-Qaida and opposes elections as “anti-Islamic.”
But the longer the conflict goes on without greater Western intervention, French officials say, the greater the danger that it will become Islamicized. The French government, which is hinting broadly that it may soon openly supply arms to the rebels, says the dangers of inaction—of a broader regional war that may already be dragging in Turkey and Lebanon, and the radicalization of the rebels —are now even greater than the risks of arming terrorists.
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