From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:
White House Shifts Assessment on Chemical Weapons; New Pressure to Respond
By Adam Entous
ABU DHABI—U.S. intelligence agencies now believe the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, the White House told Congress on Thursday, saying the agencies have “varying degrees of confidence” in the assessment.
Coming in a detailed letter to lawmakers, the findings mark a turning point in the Obama administration’s approach to the two-year civil war, constituting the administration’s most explicit acknowledgment that the bloodletting in Syria has reached a point that might require U.S. military involvement.
But administration officials, saying more proof is needed, avoided declaring that Mr. Assad had violated restrictions set by President Barack Obama against the use of chemical weapons. Such a conclusion would have increased pressure on the White House to resort to options it so far has refused to spell out, possibly including military alternatives widely seen as unfavorable. Instead, officials called for a United Nations investigation, consultations with allies and a hunt for more evidence. Alluding to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the White House said that “intelligence assessments alone” aren’t a sufficient basis for war.
But the new findings corroborate allegations in recent days and weeks from the U.S.’s closest allies, Britain, France and Israel, and widely were seen by lawmakers from both parties as proof that Syria has violated Mr. Obama’s “red lines,” presenting the White House with a potentially difficult political challenge.
This is the point at which threats to take action are either fulfilled, or revealed to have been empty threats. There’s wiggle room, of course, using the Administration’s assessment that the intelligence agencies have “varying degrees of confidence” in the judgement that the regime of President Bashir al-Assad has used chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, of the estimate that chemical weapons were used:
This is serious business. We need all the facts.
When a government official tells you that “we need all the facts” before taking action, you know that there is a serious reluctance to take action. However, I will refer, once again, to an important lesson from the late Dr Vincent Davis, former Director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce: if you have the power to do something, but choose not to do it, you have taken an action just as surely as if you had done it.
My judgement, in which I have varying degrees of confidence on this issue, is that the Obama Administration will bluster and fuss, and call for even more sanctions against Syria, but there will not be any American military action against the Assad regime.
More, it needs to be asked: is a civilian killed by poison gas somehow deader than one killed by an artillery shell or a bullet? Why, if we have been willing to tolerate two years of killing in Syria, as long as the killing was done by more conventional means, are we unwilling to tolerate killing by poison gas?
The Syrian rebellion has been going on for over two years now, and Human Rights Watch claimed in mid-March that the government forces had been using cluster munitions, another supposedly illegal weapon,1 and still the Obama Administration declined to act. The death toll in the Syrian civil war is not known with precision, but estimates in January put the toll at between 46,000 (Human Rights Watch) and 60,000 (United Nations), and February and March of this year saw something on the order of 9,000 people killed.
With all of that, we have still done nothing. Add to that the financial and military burdens of the continuing war in Afghanistan, along with the budget cuts due to the sequester — good heavens, we’ve had to cancel air shows! — your Editor sees it as highly improbable that the Obama Administration will take any military action against the Assad regime at all. The “red line” was never more than an empty threat.
- Your Editor wonders just how a party to a war can regard weapons it chooses to use as illegal; in war, only defeat is illegal, and if it is a choice between using a particular weapon and defeat, using the supposedly banned weapon will be the choice. If President Assad’s forces are victorious, there will be no penalty for using any particular weapon to achieve their victory; if they are defeated, they are headed for the hangman’s noose, whether they had used or refrained from using any particular weapons. ↩