Obama's Chemical Weapons ‘Red Line’ for Syria Keeps Shifting: Former WMD Hunter

President Obama’s “red line” for U.S. intervention in Syria is actually more of a fuzzy zone whose goalposts keep shifting, said the former top WMD hunter in Iraq.

“It’s a term I particularly don’t like because unless you’re prepared [to carry through] you really do damage to your credibility and the power of our diplomacy because no one believes you,” said David Kay, who from 2003 to 2004 led the Iraq Survey Group that searched for evidence of unconventional weapons in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion. 

Washington on Thursday said it was reasonably confident that Assad loyalists in recent months have carried out one or more limited-scale chemical attacks in Syria, likely involving the nerve agent sarin.

President Obama and his top officials have repeatedly affirmed that use or proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons would constitute an act that would demand a U.S. response.

The Thursday announcement, however, was not followed by any announcement from the White House that its threatened intervention in the Syrian civil war is now in the offing or that Assad would even be prevented from carrying out further chemical attacks.

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"Were [Assad] to undertake any additional use, he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community," a senior administration official said in a Thursday conference call with reporters. "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."

"If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed ... what we will be doing is consulting with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, as well as the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is,” the staffer told reporters.

The United States has pledged nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition but has so far avoided arming the rebels or providing any direct military assistance in the war that has already killed more than 70,000 people.

Obama first laid down his red line on chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August 2012. "A red line for us is (if) we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized. That would change my calculus” on whether a U.S. intervention is merited, the president said.

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” the president said

While the administration did not discuss specifics, outside experts interpreted the reference to movement of chemical weapons as addressing the potential removal from storage and transport of chemical weapons for firing or for proliferation to nonstate actors. However, when the Syrian military was detected in December apparently loading sarin into aerial munitions, the administration indicated that its red line was actually carrying out a chemical attack, not readying for one.

Obama officials since then in their threats to Assad ceased mentioning the movement of chemical materials while still warning against providing them to extremist organizations.

“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching,” Obama said in December. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable.” 

Administration officials have always been careful to refrain from actually defining what it means for chemical weapons to be utilized; how many must be used or proliferated to warrant a U.S. reaction; and specifically what kind of a response the United States would take. 

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also in December said there was worry "that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them. ...We have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account."

Last month Obama said, “We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake. …The Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists." 

The administration has said it has sent warnings on the matter directly to Assad.

“I do question the utility of red lines if they lack clearly delineated boundaries and meaningful consequences,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a Thursday statement that called on the White House to make good on its threats to Assad. “I am confident the president does not wish for America’s resolve to be called into question.” 

Global Green USA chemical-weapon expert Paul Walker, though, said he did not feel the administration was giving conflicting signals about where its red line lies. “I don’t think the red line has been moving but it’s still a question of what one means by use of chemical weapons.”

Kay in a Thursday interview said the lack of clarity around the red line for Syria has implications that go beyond that conflict. Other nations with their own disputes with the United States, namely Iran and North Korea, are paying attention. “You are devaluing your diplomacy when you do that because it’s going to be heard in other places.” 

“We’ve used that term so often with Iran that in fact the desert must be pink,” said Kay, now a senior fellow with the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

The Obama administration is in a tough spot in trying to balance sending a strong deterrent signal to Assad while still giving itself enough time to make certain that a chemical strike has in fact taken place and that it knows who is responsible. Answering all of those questions is no easy feat in Syria, where the U.S. lacks its own intelligence operation and an uneasy coalition of rebel militias might have their own motivations for trying to pin a chemical attack on the regime. 

Kay acknowledged that the Obama White House has the added challenge of following in the footsteps of the Bush administration, which did make good of its threats to go after Saddam Hussein only to find out afterward it had been grossly wrong in its intelligence surrounding Iraqi WMD capabilities.

“Under those conditions you have to be careful about not over threatening, particularly … about not talking about consequences that you’re not prepared to carry out,” Kay said.

Walker agreed: “We have to be careful that statements at this time do not accelerate to more than people want or is necessary.”