Capitol Hill pounced on the Obama administration’s flailing rhetoric about red lines after a slip of admonition that the Syrian regime most likely used chemical weapons.
“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said in August. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my equation.”
That equation, he said, would figure in “contingency plans” about which he did not elaborate.
In a statement delivered in the United Arab Emirates during his Mideast tour, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the White House this morning “delivered a letter to several members of Congress on the topic of chemical weapons use in Syria.”
The letter, Hagel said, “states that the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
“As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours, and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue,” he continued. “We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime. As the letter states, the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable.”
Hagel said all of the countries he stopped at, from Israel to Egypt, brought up Syria as a chief concern.
“This is serious business – we need all the facts,” he said.
A White House official speaking on background today said the letter was a response to correspondence from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The senators’ letter asked if the Assad regime or Syrian elements associated with or supported by the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.
“What we say in the letter is that our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions,” the official said.
“We go on to reaffirm that the president has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us, nor should it be to the international community. It’s precisely because we take this red line so seriously that we believe there is an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria.”
To get that “full investigation,” the White House is not calling on U.S. intelligence services but on the United Nations.
“I think the point here is that given the stakes involved, given how serious the situation is, and what we have learned, frankly, from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments are not alone sufficient,” the official said.
This dance around around the interpretation of red line — “the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups,” the official said, but internationally corroborated to a degree of satisfaction to the president — frustrated lawmakers who worried about how the message of pussyfooting on a publicly declared vow would look to America’s enemies in addition to the idea of WMDs on the loose.
“If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on the Syrian people, this is an astounding violation of human rights,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
“I trust and agree with President Obama that the use of chemical munitions or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists would be a red line for his administration, and with it the civilized world. As the commander-in-chief, there is a national security imperative here. As the leader of the free world, there is a deep moral imperative as well,” McKeon added. “Instead, it appears that the president is outsourcing our national security analysis to the United Nations.”
“I do question the utility of red lines if they lack clearly delineated boundaries and meaningful consequences. I am confident the president does not wish for America’s resolve to be called into question.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said it’s “important that we read the intelligence as it is laid out, not as we would like it to be.”
“President Obama correctly said that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a red line for the United States. Now that we have confirmed their use, the question is what is our plan for transition to a post-Assad Syria?” Rogers said. “I have laid out several steps, short of boots on the ground. The world is waiting for American leadership.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said “the time for passive engagement in this conflict must come to an end.”
“It’s clear the ‘red line’ drawn by President Obama has now been crossed,” Rubio said. “…I urge President Obama to explain to Congress and the American people how he will ensure Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are secured, how we’ll work with our allies to prevent further use of these deadly weapons, and what additional measures he is ready to take to follow through on his previous statements.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce noted that if Obama wanted international confirmation, the French and British have already ascertained that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.
“Tomorrow, I will be briefed on the Syria situation by Secretary Kerry,” Royce said. “At that briefing, I will ask the secretary to explain the administration’s new plans in Syria.”
Some Democrats, though, were willing to give Obama some breathing room on the definition of red line and urged a careful international response.
“Based on the intelligence that we have, it appears that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. If true, this is a sad and worrisome development in an ongoing humanitarian crisis,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee. “We must work with our partners in the region and the international community to confirm beyond a doubt that chemical weapons were in fact used and, if so, determine who used them and when. The seriousness of the situation dictates a thorough and thoughtful approach.”
“The Syrian people deserve the right to live free of tyranny and oppression and the United States must continue to be a force for good in the world,” Smith added. “I encourage the administration to take the time necessary to confirm what has taken place and to develop an appropriate response.”
Even some liberals, though, criticized a failing policy and White House wordplay.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said “the time has come for a new policy,” as the current path “is no longer strategically or morally sustainable.”
“Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic’s war crimes in the Balkans,” Jackson Lee said. “What is all the more astonishing is that Dr. Assad’s killing spree has continued despite severe and escalating international pressure against him. Despite a year’s worth of diplomacy backed by sanctions, Assad and his lieutenants show no signs of giving up. To the contrary, they appear to be accelerating their fight to the finish.”
“…The Syrian people deserve a chance at freedom, and shame on us if we fail to help them now in their moment of greatest need.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Menendez, who was expected to be harder on administration parsing than his predecessor John Kerry, said there’s no question that the red line has been crossed.
“The Assad regime has crossed a red line by using chemical weapons, which forces us to consider all options as to how we act to influence the balance of the conflict. Among these options would be the enforcement of an internationally-recognized no-fly zone, providing lethal assistance to vetted opposition forces, and sanctioning the transfer of arms to the regime,” he said.
“The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world exists in and around Syria. It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups, and the rise of democracy,” Menendez added. “We must do everything possible to prevent the regime’s use of chemical weapons and to ensure those stockpiles are secure.”