We all knew, or should have known, that it was coming. And now here it is:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Syrian regime has likely used chemical weapons on a “small scale.”
Hagel was speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi. He says the White House has informed members of Congress that, within the last day, U.S. intelligence concluded with “some degree of varying confidence” that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons — specifically sarin gas.
Hagel says, quote, “It violates every convention of warfare.”
How’d we get to the point where the White House is saying this out loud, knowing that it’ll bring down a mountain of heat on Obama to enforce his WMD “red line”? Partly, I think, because Britain and especially Israel have been increasingly vocal about evidence of chemical weapon use in Syria. It’s one thing to pretend nothing’s going on, it’s another thing to pretend when other credible western intel outfits are saying something’s up. The other part of the equation is congressional interventionists, led of course by McCain, seizing on the British and IDF reports to put O on the spot. McCain sent him a letter last night co-signed by seven other senators asking for a U.S. intelligence assessment of whether Assad’s gone to the gas. Presumably that’s what got Hagel talking this morning.
So that means we’re going in, in one fashion or another, right? Well, wait:
White House: U.S. intelligence assessments on Syria chemical weapons are not enough; credible and corroborated facts needed #breaking
— Reuters (@Reuters) April 25, 2013
White House: U.S. prepared for "all contingencies" on Syria to respond to any confirmed use of chemical weapons" #breaking
— Reuters (@Reuters) April 25, 2013
Does that mean U.S. intelligence isn’t confident enough yet, or does it mean that even if they’re 99 percent sure, we’re not making a move until there’s a smoking gun, i.e. a much larger attack for which there’s no plausible deniability? Alternate headline: “White House really, really reluctant to intervene in Syria.”
I’m hearing rumors on Twitter that the White House has formally replied to McCain’s letter but I can’t find a copy yet, assuming it exists. Stand by for updates. While we wait, read this report from the Times of Israel that tries to answer the question I posed yesterday. Did the IDF announce its conclusions about chemical weapons usage in Syria as some sort of gaffe (wasn’t that information classified?) or deliberately, to put more public pressure on Obama to respond? TOI’s verdict: Quite possibly a gaffe. Does Israel really benefit by having the U.S. intervene in Syria on the side that harbors lots and lots of Israel-hating jihadists? Why further alienate/annoy Obama by putting him on the spot just to help a bunch of armed Salafis?
Update: What does the White House mean when it says it’s preparing for contingencies? Read this if you missed it last week.
Update: Per John Kerry, they crossed the red line not once but twice:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Kerry says #Syrian regime launched 2 chemical attacks.
— Phil Elliott (@Philip_Elliott) April 25, 2013
Update: There is indeed a letter to McCain from the White House this morning. Key grafs:
The point about the chain of custody is totally fair. Syria’s rebels have an interest in making it look like a chemical attack happened even if it didn’t. Thanks to Obama’s “red line” blather, a soil sample showing sarin or some other nerve agent is the quickest path to getting the west to intervene. As for the rest of it, I don’t know how else to read it except as a message to Assad that as long as he keeps the attacks small and plausibly deniable, there won’t be any major action. You may well see some sort of covert small-scale action in response to what we’ve already found. Those U.S. military trainers are in Jordan for a reason, don’tcha know.
Update: A lot better than a soil sample:
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?…
“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.”…
“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.