Obama on Syria: When I said chemical weapons were a "game-changer," I meant we'd rethink our options or something

Via Mediaite, to follow up on Ed’s post, here’s The One at this morning’s presser taking seven minutes to remind the world that he’s trying hard not to enforce his “red line.” The big soundbite is his vague pseudo-warning near the end about rethinking the “range of options” available to him, but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is him wondering aloud whether Assad’s really responsible for using chemical weapons lately — “we don’t know when they were used, how they were used. We don’t know who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody,” etc. He sounded a lot more skeptical about claims of Assad’s innocence a few weeks ago at that presser in Jerusalem. If isn’t Assad isn’t to blame for the recent gas attacks, then who? Hmmmm:

[R]eactions in the U.S. intelligence community have varied because of the possibility — however small — that the exposure was accidental or caused by rebel fighters or others outside the Syrian government’s control, officials said.

Releases of poison gas could have occurred when soldiers loyal to the regime, which has been trying to secure and consolidate its dozens of chemical weapons sites, moved part of its stockpile, a U.S. Defense official said. Another possibility is that disloyal Syrian weapons scientists supplied chemicals to rebel fighters…

“The Iraq WMD is looming over this, as it ought to be,” a senior congressional official said. “How can you be more confident in the assessment here? These are questions we are all asking.”

All of that was also true back when O first started blathering about “red lines,” yet only now that he’s being called on to back up his threats are these other possible culprits suddenly occurring to him. Iran’s begun openly mocking him for his hesitation, issuing its own “red line” today forbidding use of WMDs by either Assad or “the opposition.” Does Obama now agree that the rebels themselves might be responsible for one of the incidents involving chemical weapons? (Assad’s regime accuses them of it regularly, for what little that’s worth.) No one pressed him on that today. If he does come to that conclusion, does that also cross America’s “red line” or is it only the regime’s use that would trigger action? If the point of the red line is to enforce a taboo against WMD, any usage should warrant intervention, not just if it’s done by Assad. But in that case, the rebels would actually have an incentive to go chemical: If you want Assad’s stockpile off the table, start gassing people and wait for U.S. or Jordanian or Turkish troops to swoop in and grab Assad’s arsenal.

The other reason O’s hesitating is that stories about the rebels’ radicalism keep piling up, none starker than this one at the Times over the weekend:

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of

“My sense is that there are no seculars,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War, who has made numerous trips to Syria in recent months to interview rebel commanders.

Good luck navigating the politics of intervention with rhetoric like that floating around in newspapers. It would take a hawk of unusually blind commitment to want to start bombing Assad when Syria-watchers are warning openly that the rebels are a witches’ brew of jihadists and Islamists. Is there anyone like that in American politics? There is, my friends.

I’ll leave you with a question: Why would Iran necessarily treat O’s retreat from his Syrian “red line” as proof that he’ll also retreat from his “red line” on their nuclear program? Every commentator I’ve read on that subject seems to think Obama’s now duty-bound to attack Assad if only to show Tehran that his ultimatums mean something, never mind whether the attack’s likely to succeed, whether it’ll have unintended consequences, whether it’ll embolden Assad to use whatever WMD he has left, etc. (This is a problem of O’s own making, of course. If he had kept his mouth shut about “red lines” in Syria to begin with, he wouldn’t be in a jam now.) If I was an Iranian strategist with a passing knowledge of U.S. politics, I wouldn’t assume that one retreat foretells another. On the contrary, I’d conclude that the flak he’s taking for being weak on Syria will force him into a corner such that he can’t afford to show weakness again if/when Iran tests him. He can get away with wimpiness towards Assad because the public doesn’t perceive him as a threat to the U.S. and because they’re suspicious of another regime-changing intervention after Iraq and Libya. Iran and its nuclear potential are a different problem, one O’s been talking about since before he was elected to his first term. Does Iran understand that (their propaganda today about “red lines” notwithstanding), or do they really think that the response to Syria necessarily predicts the response to them?

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Jazz Shaw 5:31 PM on December 01, 2022