The White House expressed no eagerness today about coming up against — again — President Obama’s red line on chemical weapons in Syria.
The administration repeatedly asserts that President Bashar al-Assad disposed of his chemical weapons stockpile in a deal brokered by Russia to avoid military action at the last red line, when more than 1,400 people were killed in a Damascus suburb with sarin delivered via rockets. For example, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told the J Street conference in March that they “peacefully removed Syria’s entire declared stockpile of chemical weapons.”
Assad has turned to chlorine gas as his chemical weapon of choice, with repeated deadly attacks on civilians as the administration has continued counting the red-line avoidance as a foreign policy success.
Reuters reported Friday that Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons inspectors found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at a military research site that was not declared as a chemical weapons storage or production facility.
“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomatic source told Reuters. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today the administration is “aware that the OPCW continues to receive credible allegations that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is still taking place.”
“Attempts by the OPCW to resolve some gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declaration of their chemical weapons have gone unresolved,” Earnest said. “And we’re also concerned that progress toward destroying all remaining chemical weapons reduction facilities in Syria have been agonizingly slow.”
Earnest acknowledged the Assad regime “continues to not abide by international standards and norms, including the Chemical Weapons Convention and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2118 and 2209.”
“But as has also been well documented, the Assad regime continues to terrorize the people of Syria through indiscriminate airstrikes, barrel bombings, arbitrary detention and other gross acts of violence that are committed against their own people,” he added.
Asked what the response would be from the White House upon another crossing of the red line, Earnest replied, “Well, this is something that, you know, we obviously are very concerned about and closely monitoring. And we’re aware of these allegations and we believe it’s important for the OPCW to investigate them fully.”
At the end of March, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) urged Obama to act swiftly against Assad’s chlorine gas attacks.
“Bashar al-Assad and those forces backing his regime, including the government of Iran and its proxy force, Hezbollah, are once again challenging the world and testing the boundaries of the will of the international community to respond,” Menendez wrote.
In September 2013, Menendez’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against the Government of Syria to Respond to Use of Chemical Weapons.
“It is clear,” he said, that the administration’s agreement with Assad to prevent military action “has not prevented the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, nor has international pressure changed Assad’s calculus with respect to murdering his own people.”
“Worse, Assad’s supporters, including the Iranian regime, the Russian government, and Hezbollah have actually increased their support for the regime as these attacks have continued and increased in nature and scope,” Menendez wrote. “All options for response must be explored. We must send a clear signal to Assad and his backers that the international community will not tolerate further such attacks.”