Something that got lost in the shuffle over the weekend and in yesterday’s chaos, although it shouldn’t have. If O’s serious about his warnings to Assad — “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer” — then Syria will be back on the news radar soon, in dramatic ways. Over to you, British intelligence:
Evidence of the use of chemical weapons has been discovered in a soil sample smuggled out of Syria, The Times of London reported on Saturday.
The report quoted anonymous British defense sources who said that “some kind of chemical weapon” was used in Syria but they could not tell whether the chemicals were used by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces or by the rebels.
The finding was established by the British Ministry of Defense’s chemical and biological research establishment at Porton Down in in Wiltshire. The sources ruled out that the chemical traces found in the soil were from substances used to control riots with one saying, “There have been some reports that it was just a strong riot-control agent but this is not the case — it’s something else, although it can’t definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent.”
The “strong riot-control agent” they’re referring to is likely Agent 15 or something similar, named as possible causes of the two previous chemical-weapons scares in Syria this winter. If it’s not that, what is it? Another western diplomat from an unspecified country told AFP, “There are several examples where we are quite sure that shells with chemicals have been used in a very sporadic way,” and that the evidence sent to the UN of chemical weapons usage was “quite convincing.” If you’re inclined to dismiss all this as the uninformed mumblings of anonymous sources, note that Britain’s foreign minister said just yesterday that he’s increasingly concerned that chemical weapons have been used. How can he be sure? According to the article quoted above, a soil sample was smuggled out of Syria (no word on which city) that proves something foul was released. I find that amazing, not technically but politically: It’s obvious that Obama doesn’t want to intervene in Syria unless something happens that leaves him with no choice. A mass-casualty attack using chemical weapons would force his hand; a small attack with few casualties that can’t be proved to have been chemical wouldn’t, unless an ally was working hard to show that it really did happen. The fact that this is being leaked to British papers, knowing that it would put Obama on the spot, smells like the Brits are trying to pressure Obama into doing something. But what?
Per WaPo, as of three weeks ago, our options were … not good:
The course Obama intends to take if confronted with proof of a chemical attack is equally unclear. The Pentagon has prepared calibrated options, ranging from airstrikes to sending troops to seize weapons sites. But officials said they haven’t taken the advance steps necessary to carry out such orders because planning has been hobbled by concerns about the political backlash to a potential U.S. intervention as well as struggles to coordinate with regional allies.
“If we had to go in tomorrow, I’d say we aren’t ready,” said an Obama administration official involved in preparations for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. “One thing we want to avoid is having one group securing the sites and another group bombing them.”
Supposedly there are U.S. troops in Jordan training special forces there to go in and seize some of Assad’s weapons depots just across the border. That’s assuming, of course, that Assad is the guilty party in using WMD and not the jihadist nuts among the rebels he’s fighting. There are reasons to think outfits like Jabhat al-Nusra might be able, not to mention willing, to use chemical weapons against the regime, but that’s less likely than the opposite being true and in any case Obama’s already expressed extreme skepticism that any rebel faction might be responsible for WMDs there. It doesn’t really matter for “red line” purposes if they did, frankly: Knowing that jihadi fighters had already broken the chemical-weapons taboo is only further incentive to seize whatever Assad has left and get it out of the country before the rebels grab it and “Phase Two: Beyond Thunderdome” of the Syrian civil war begins. (The Islamists in the rebel ranks are already at each other’s throats.) The question is, by warning Assad publicly rather than privately that chemical-weapons use would have “consequences,” did Obama inadvertently create an incentive for the opposition to use them (if they’re capable) knowing that Assad will be blamed? If you’re a rebel eager for U.S. military help and you think you can get away with detonating a few chemical shells without leaving fingerprints, you might decide to do it and hope that the west holds the nut in Damascus who’s spent two years slaughtering people responsible.
Mike Rogers is already on record as saying that the U.S. should do something about Assad’s chemical weapons and the Senate’s superhawks are always up for an American intervention in some hopeless part of the world, so expect some GOP pressure on O over this if/when the battle over gun control (and immigration?) are over.