In which the Obama White House tries to walk back one of the president’s more irresponsible lines.
The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend last August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Mr. Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged.
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
Translated: We didn’t really mean it! This president, he just talks sometimes. Doesn’t really pay attention to what he’s saying. So go back to your previously scheduled civil war and don’t mind us.
As if to make things even messier, the UN is now saying that the Syrian rebels have used sarin.
Testimony from victims of the Syrian conflict suggests rebels have used the nerve agent sarin, according to a leading United Nations investigator.
Carla del Ponte told Swiss TV there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”.
However, she said her panel had not yet seen evidence of government forces using chemical weapons.