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Thursday, April 25, 2013

US admits Assad using chem weapons - now what?

The problem with setting red lines is that you have be willing to back it up when someone crosses one, or all your red lines become meaningless. President Obama has said countless times that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria would be a red line that cause the United States to step in. Obama likely believed (naively) that could not or would not happen. Now, it apparently has.

The report that might have finally forced the Obama administration to admit that chemical weapons are being used was this report, which  claims that American spies in Syria claim that the blood of Syrians shows sarin, a dangerous nerve agent (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
The U.S. intelligence community has uncovered strong evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Several blood samples, taken from multiple people, have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, an American intelligence source tells Danger Room. President Obama has long said that the use of such a weapon by the Assad regime would cross a “red line.” So now the question becomes: What will the White House do in response?
In March, the Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons during an attack on the city of Aleppo. The blood samples are taken by Syrian opposition groups from alleged victims of that strike. But American analysts can’t be entirely sure where exactly the blood came from, when the precisely exposure took place.
“This is more than one organization representing that they have more than one sample from more than one attack,” the source tells Danger Room. “But we can’t confirm anything because no is really sure what’s going on in country.”
What’s clear is that the samples are authentic, and that the weapons were almost certainly employed by the Assad regime, which began months ago mixing up quantities of sarin’s chemical precursors for an potential attack, as Danger Room first reported.
“It would be very, very difficult for the opposition to fake this. Not only would they need the wherewithal to steal it or brew it up themselves. Then they’d need volunteers who would notionally agree to a possibly lethal exposure,” the source adds.
Most of the video below seems to assume that the weapons were fired by the opposition groups. But that's unlikely since as far as we know they don't control any chemical weapons. It's far more likely that the weapons were fired by the Assad regime's army. The video is from the Aleppo attack in March.

Let's go to the videotape.

On Thursday morning, the White House admitted in a letter to Senators Carl Levin (D-Mi) and John McCain (R-Az) that the sarin was discovered. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted as much as well.
"This morning the White House delivered a letter to several members of Congress on the topic of chemical weapons use in Syria. The letter ... states that the US intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria," Hagel told reporters traveling with him. He said it was sarin gas.
Note that Hagel said 'small scale.' That is part of the opening the White House seems to be using to minimize the significance of the discovery.
However, the White House stated that US Intelligence assessments on chemical weapons are not enough.
"Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient - only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making," Miguel Rodriguez, White House director of the office of legislative affairs, said in a letter to lawmakers. The White House added that the US is prepared for all contingencies on Syria to respond to any confirmed use of chemical weapons.
Mind you, both Britain and Israel said last week that they had evidence that Assad was using chemical weapons. But now that the red line has apparently been crossed, Obama will move back the stakes.
It’s not at all clear how the Obama administration will now respond. While everyone from the President on down has warned the Assad regime not to use chemical arms, the White House has been extremely careful not to “pin the administration down on any particular course of action while at the same time not giving Assad any comfort,” Steven Simon, who served as the National Security Council’s director for the Mideast until December, tells Danger Room. “There’s no automaticity to any response.”
That was underscored by a White House official briefing reporters on background this afternoon. The official, who would not agree to be quoted by name, said that the next step for the administration would be “further investigation,” including by the United Nations, to confirm that chemical weapons were used and used deliberately by the Assad regime — a prerequisite for any unspecified additional response. “We’re already working with the Syrian opposition who can helps us in corroborating reports and gathering evidence,” the official said, as well as allies like Britain. 
The White House official said it would be premature to declare that Obama’s red line has been crossed. “It’s precisely because we take the red line seriously that we feel like there needs to be clear, factual evidentiary bases for our decisions,” the official said. “Given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction” — a reference to the infamous incorrect assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons before the Iraq invasion — “it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty.”
Even the Democrats in Congress aren't buying that one.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued a statement saying “It is clear that ‘red lines’ have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger scale use.” Feinstein appeared to mean military action to remove Assad from power: “I urge the United Nations Security Council — including Russia — to finally take strong and meaningful action to end this crisis in Syria.”
Her House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), did not go that far. “President Obama correctly said that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a red line for the United States,” Rogers said in his own statement this afternoon. “Now that we have confirmed their use, the question is what is our plan for transition to a post-Assad Syria? I have laid out several steps, short of boots on the ground. The world is waiting for American leadership.”
Something tells me that the world is going to be waiting for a long time.

But if your name is Netanyahu tonight and you're Prime Minister of Israel, you have to pretend that instead of talking about Syrian chemical weapons (which are also a threat to us, albeit possibly a less immediate one), this story was about an Iranian nuclear weapon. If we wait for Obama to act, we are likely to come across similar dithering with Obama saying there's not enough evidence that Iran has gone nuclear until it is too late. The difference between the two situations is that in the case of Iran there is another party - Israel - that is willing to act without the United States.

Right Bibi?

What could go wrong?

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