President Barack Obama is under renewed pressure from lawmakers to increase U.S. efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after U.S. intelligence agencies reported “with varying degrees of confidence” that the regime may have used small amounts of sarin nerve gas.
That’s a shift from the administration’s previous responses to chemical-weapons allegations by Syrian opposition groups. Although the U.S. intelligence community has differing levels of confidence that Assad’s regime has used poison gas, the new assessment draws Obama closer to his previously declared “red line” over such use and has fueled calls for action by lawmakers already advocating deeper involvement.
“The Syrians crossed the line the president had said would be a game changer,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters. New York Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that it’s “time for the U.S. and our allies to immediately arm” elements of the Syrian opposition.
While he has used the words “red line” and “game changer,” Obama hasn’t defined what would trigger more muscular U.S. action or how his administration may respond to conclusive evidence that Assad has used chemical or biological weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the U.S. is providing an additional $123 million to the Syrian opposition, doubling so-called nonlethal aid, while some Persian Gulf nations send arms and money. As the administration has pressed at the United Nations for diplomatic efforts to remove Assad, Obama has discouraged talk of U.S. military intervention.
Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, yesterday stressed that the new intelligence assessment isn’t a sufficient basis for military intervention.
“Given the stakes involved,” the assessment is “not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making,” Miguel E. Rodriguez, Obama’s legislative liaison to Congress, wrote in a letter to lawmakers yesterday.
Speaking with reporters in Brussels today, Michael Mann, the spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said that while “any use of chemical weapons in any circumstances is completely unacceptable,” the U.S. intelligence assessment “wasn’t completely definitive.”
“At the moment we are still monitoring this along with our international partners to see what has really happened because it doesn’t seem entirely clear at this point in time,” he said, adding: “We’ve seen that the regime in Syrian regime doesn’t seem to have much respect for human life. But we can’t be definitive on this until we have seen definitive evidence.”
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research group, said “two small uses, if we can’t tie it to Assad and to the regime, isn’t really a red line.”
Particularly after the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it’s important not to overreact, Cordesman said.
“You need to wait long enough to have a clear context for action,” he said. “Then the American political debate has to suddenly realize: If you’re telling the president it’s a red line and it’s been crossed, you’d better be in the position to agree to the use of force.”
The Obama administration already is under pressure -- from U.S. lawmakers, Israel, France, the U.K., the Syrian opposition and Persian Gulf nations seeking Assad’s removal -- to start providing weapons to the rebels. Some, such as McCain, also are urging the creation of a no-fly zone over the country, or sending in troops to seize Assad’s chemical and biological weapons before they fall into terrorists’ hands.
The administration remains reluctant to get involved militarily in part because it has insufficient intelligence on the Syrian regime and opposition groups, which include Islamic extremists allied with al-Qaeda, two U.S. officials said yesterday. Both spoke on the condition of not being identified because they have access to classified information on Syria.
The officials said there is no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community about whether Syria has used small amounts of nerve gas, with different agencies expressing widely varied confidence in the assessment. Some agencies had only low to moderate confidence in the intelligence.
The U.S. would need the highest level of confidence to present evidence of Syrian chemical weapons use to the international community and make a case for action against the Assad regime. The current intelligence assessments fall short of that standard, said one of the officials.
According to the definitions used by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Low confidence generally means that the information’s credibility and/or plausibility is questionable, or that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytic inferences, or that we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.”
“Moderate confidence generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence,” according to the definitions.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who described the “limited but growing evidence” as “extremely serious,” said today that Britain and its allies are being careful not to repeat the mistakes over Iraq. Support for the Syrian opposition should be stepped up, Cameron said, though he said British troops are unlikely to be sent to Syria.
“This is a war crime, and we should take it very seriously,” Cameron said in an interview with the BBC. “We’ve been careful not to make the mistake sometimes made in the past that as soon as you see a report you rush into print. We’re trying to consider the evidence with our allies, make sure that we can verify it, but this is extremely serious and I think what President Obama said was absolutely right, that this should be for the international community a red line for us to do more.”
The U.K. Foreign Office issued a statement yesterday that spoke of “limited but persuasive information from various sources showing chemical-weapon use in Syria, including sarin.”
The second U.S. official said there is no evidence of mass casualties, which suggests that if the Assad regime did use such weapons, it did so only in small quantities that are very difficult to trace.
It’s possible, that official said, that a local military commander may have used small amounts of the odorless nerve gas to terrorize people, rather than as a weapon of mass destruction, and it isn’t clear whether any use might have been authorized by Assad or other top regime officials.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has designated a fact-finding team of specialists to look into reports of chemical-weapons use if the Syrian government grants it “full and unfettered” access, according to a statement from a spokesman.
Despite the U.S. intelligence community’s low to moderate confidence, the new assessment quickly prompted fresh calls on Capitol Hill for more U.S. action. Lawmakers from both parties cited Obama’s past statements that a “red line” would be crossed if the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
“I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years in this bloodletting and massacre, that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to people in the resistance whom we trust,” McCain said.
McCain has advocated U.S. military support for Syrian rebels to speed the fall of the Assad regime in a war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who leads the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement that it’s “clear that red lines have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use.”
While she urged the UN Security Council to step up efforts to end the conflict, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he was “deeply concerned” that further confirmation of chemical weapons use “may be outsourced” to the UN.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that “while more work needs to be done to fully verify this assessment -- like making sure we understand the chain of custody of the evidence -- it is becoming increasingly clear that we must step up our efforts.”
The U.S. intelligence assessment is based “in part on physiological samples,” and issues remain that complicate an authoritative conclusion, according to Rodriguez, the White House congressional liaison. He cited questions about how the evidence was handled, how the exposure occurred and under what conditions in his letter to McCain and Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
A White House official declined to describe what sort of “physiological samples” were analyzed, or to say when and where the alleged chemical attacks occurred. The official spoke with reporters on condition of not being identified at the insistence of the White House.
In Israel last month, Obama said, “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.” In August, amid concern that Assad would resort to extreme actions, Obama said, “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 moving around or being utilized.”