Syria crosses 'red line' on chemical weapons. How will Obama respond?

US officials say the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons 'multiple times' to kill at least 100 rebel fighters and civilians. Obama had warned Syria of 'enormous consequences' if it crossed that 'red line.'

Aleppo Media Center AMC/AP
Members of the free Syrian Army prepare their weapons in Aleppo, Syria. Rebels are pressing for a decision from the West on arming their forces to even their odds now that Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas are fighting alongside the regime.

In a warning last summer to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Obama said a “red line” would have been crossed if chemical weapons were used against rebels fighting there, and he promised “enormous consequences” if that were to happen.

According to news reports Thursday and a direct statement by the White House, that red line clearly has been crossed with chemical weapons used to kill between 100 and 150 people. But the White House was vague about its immediate response, other than to note it would "increase the scope and scale of assistance" to the anti-Assad rebels.

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a statement. “Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.”

“The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete,” Mr. Rhodes said, indicating that there may well be more casualties from chemical weapons.

“The body of information used to make this intelligence assessment includes reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location, and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent,” Rhodes said.

In his earlier warning to Syria, Obama had said this: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or utilized. There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movements on the chemical weapons or use, that would change my calculations significantly.”

“A whole bunch of chemical weapons” and “change my calculations significantly” are phrases designed for maximum flexibility.

But Obama has been under increasing pressure to do more about the situation in Syria, which has seen, according to the latest UN estimate, at least 93,000 people killed – most of them civilians – and thousands more turned into refugees trying to escape the fighting.

In recent weeks, Britain, France, Israel, and the United Nations all have asserted that Assad regime forces had used chemical weapons. Domestic political pressure has been mounting as well.

“It is long past time to bring the Assad regime’s bloodshed in Syria to an end,” Buck Brendan, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement Thursday. “As President Obama examines his options, it is our hope he will properly consult with Congress before taking any action.”

In a joint statement, Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who are pushing for the US and its allies to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, said, “We cannot afford to delay any longer.”

“Assad is on the offensive with every weapon in his arsenal and with the complete support of his foreign allies,” they said. “We must take more decisive actions now to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria.”

More to the point for a Democratic President in the White House, former President Bill Clinton this week sided with that view, according to several reports from a private meeting at which Senator McCain and Mr. Clinton spoke.

“Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake,” Clinton said.

“I agree with you about this,” Clinton told McCain during an event for the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Manhattan Tuesday night, reported. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”

At this point, the Obama administration is being less than specific in its response the “red line” report about chemical weapons killing rebel fighters and likely civilians in Syria.

“The Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition,” Ben Rhodes at the White House said. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

“The United States and the international community have a number of other legal, financial, diplomatic, and military responses available,” Rhodes said. “We are prepared for all contingencies, and we will make decisions on our own timeline.”

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