The White House officially acknowledged Thursday that the Syrian regime likely used chemical weapons on a small scale. This is a reversal of previous statements from the U.S. administration that have repeatedly stressed the lack of clear evidence from Israel, France and the United Kingdom on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. acknowledgment, while heavily caveated, represents a clear change in perspective by the White House. Whether the shift in rhetoric will actually translate into a shift in U.S. military posture is still a big question.
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The White House sent a letter to several members of Congress on Thursday that said the U.S. intelligence community has assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" based on "physiological samples" that the nerve agent sarin was used on a small scale in two instances. The letter said it was unclear how the nerve gas was released but that the decision "very likely" originated with the Syrian regime. Though U.S. President Barack Obama has publicly, albeit ambiguously, warned Syrian President Bashar al Assad that the use of chemical weapons is a redline for the United States, the letter to Congress did not advocate military action. It instead called for a comprehensive U.N. investigation to "establish all the facts" before Washington decides its next moves.
Pressure for U.S. Action
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who only a day earlier had reiterated his doubts over Israeli allegations that a nerve agent had been used, told reporters Thursday while in Abu Dhabi that he would be prepared to present military options to Obama "at such time as the president requires options." Hagel at the same time stressed the need for the United States to work with its allies to fully investigate the claims.
The White House has been facing increasing pressure to acknowledge evidence put forward by its allies that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons. Israeli Brig. Gen. Itai Brun on Tuesday spoke at a conference in Israel organized by the Institute for National Security Studies. He presented a photo of a child with narrowed pupils and foam coming out of the mouth. The photo, along with soil samples from France and the United Kingdom he said he examined, led him to conclude that sarin had been used. Several U.S. congressmen, including Sen. John McCain, who has been vociferously advocating U.S. military action and increased support for rebels in Syria, have called on the U.S. administration to act before the weapons are used in mass or fall into the wrong hands.
The pressure on the United States to at least acknowledge the use of chemical weapons has long been apparent. But the White House would not have flipped its position in such a short time without thinking through the consequences and what it hopes to achieve from this shift beyond trying to appease a few members of Congress. There are three possible scenarios that we need to consider.
The first is that the U.S. administration is attempting a psychological warfare campaign to influence al Assad to step aside and allow a new government to emerge. Obama already termed the use of chemical weapons as a redline, and so the use of those weapons would suggest that the regime, or at least some element of the regime, is trying to call Washington's bluff. The United States can either continue denying the evidence or use an acknowledgment to try to convince al Assad that military action is an option.
A U.S. military intervention in Syria to secure the weapons would entail the destruction of al Assad's regime and his military's conventional capabilities. There is little reason for al Assad to accelerate that process. If the Syrian president has any doubt that he has full control over the country's chemical weapons stockpile and therefore may not be able to effectively prevent a U.S. invasion, then (at least the U.S. administration hopes) al Assad would conclude that agreeing to a negotiated settlement is better than risking his regime's destruction from a military intervention. Though a negotiated settlement is the ideal outcome for the United States, al Assad has many reasons to doubt any potential offers of amnesty when the survival of his clan and minority sect are being threatened by an emboldened Sunni opposition.
The second scenario entails the United States trying to elicit cooperation from Russia, which already has a deep intelligence footprint in Syria and a military base at Tartus, to secure the chemical weapons stockpiles and influence al Assad to step down. There have been several important sit-downs recently between U.S. and Russian officials on Syria and other issues. Many sore points remain between Moscow and Washington, but the United States could be trying to negotiate a deal that would involve Russian cooperation on Syria. But so far, there is little indication that Russia is warming up to the idea. Moscow, after all, has an interest in preserving its allies in Damascus for as long as it can and would rather see the United States entangled in another Middle Eastern quagmire than put itself in the middle of the Syrian conflict.
The third possible outcome is that the United States is reaching the conclusion that a military intervention in Syria to secure weapons of concern may be inevitable. The United States may decide that the time has come to make military preparations even though such an intervention would absorb the U.S. military in another lengthy and complex conflict in the Middle East, and that the United States would have a poor chance at fashioning a moderate government to reunite the country. Targeted operations to seize weapons at known locations will have limited impact and still carry risk. Mobilizing 70,000 personnel and their support equipment, the number floated for a comprehensive seizure to suppress the chemical weapons threat, would not be easy to hide, however. In essence, this would amount to preparation for a full-scale war. So far, we haven't picked up any unambiguous movements by the U.S. military to suggest that preparations for such a military intervention are underway.
At the very least, the United States is responding to pressure to admit that evidence has cropped up to indicate that chemical weapons have been used. Still, the U.S. administration is also being very careful to caveat this acknowledgment, pointing to concerns over the "chain of custody" in how and from where the blood samples were obtained to demonstrate that the evidence is not foolproof. White House officials are even alluding to the faulty Iraqi intelligence estimates regarding weapons of mass destruction to reiterate its aversion to premature military considerations for Syria. The reasons for U.S. restraint are profound. And while the acknowledgement of chemical weapons use narrows the political space for the U.S. administration to evade a military response to the conflict, the heavily caveated nature of that acknowledgement is helping Washington to blur, if not shift, the so-called redline.