Are Chemical Weapons use in Syria really Obama’s Red line? (Feaver)

Julie Poucher Harbin presents an interview with Peter Feaver via Islamicommentary

According to an assessment signed by White House director of the office of legislative affairs Miguel Rodriguez, which was sent to lawmakers on Thursday (April 25) ”Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.” (BBC reported)

However the letter also said: “Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.”

Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi on Thursday (April 25), U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the use of sarin “violates every convention of warfare.”

The White House’s belief that Syria has used chemical weapons on its own people could be a game-changer for President Obama’s policy toward that nation.

Eric Ferreri, with Duke’s Office of News & Communications, spoke to Peter Feaver — Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University and Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies — about this latest development.

“The Obama approach to the region has been premised on the claim that the tides of war are receding and that there will be no more Iraqs on his watch. The president has tried strenuously to avoid intervening decisively in the Syrian conflict, but has also established a red line regarding chemical weapons. Now Obama has acknowledged that there is substantial intelligence establishing that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict,” said Feaver.

Added Feaver, an expert in U.S. policy and international relations who has also served in both the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidential administrations: ”There are enough ambiguities in the intelligence to leave Obama some wriggle room, and the original red line was vague enough to supply still more wriggle room, but that room is narrowing. The White House announcement sets in motion a process that could end soon in a game-changing decision: whether to enforce the red line and thus sacrifice the Middle East strategy or whether to leave it un-enforced and thus sacrifice U.S. credibility.”


Mirrored from Islamicommentary.

Posted in Syria | 26 Responses | Print |

26 Responses

  1. It seems highly implausible to me that chemical weapons would be used as asserted within the capitol Damascus. Saddam used them against the Kurds in a remote region, but I cannot believe he would have used them in Baghdad, no matter how desperate. It just seems highly improbable.

    • The most recent reports from Salim Idris the FSA commander, in an interview with CNN is that the poisonous gas used was in Homs, Aleppo, and Otaiba – which is a community outside of Damascus. There have been no reports of any gas attack within Damascus.

      See: link to

      The Syrian government has claimed use of poison gas by rebaels.

      In any event, the allegations and preliminary proof warrant further investigation, an UN ispection teams are being suggested.

  2. Robert Fisk, the distinguished foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK) ( recently contributed a measure of skepticism about the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

    • Russia’s foreign miniter, Sergei Lavrov, has also warned the U.S. not to jump the gun, citing the Iraq precedent.

  3. “The White House’s belief that Syria has used chemical weapons on its own people …”

    That isn’t at all what the White House letter said. I think Professor Feaver knows thit; if not, he should re-read the letter.

    Mercenaries from Iraq, Sierra Leone and Libya are not “Syria’s own people.”

  4. In the back of my mind is the wonder if this information might not be “cooked”. There is a country that must not be named that has a great interest in having the US continue to be bogged down in the Middle East. Said country has a record of such kitchen wizardry.

    • That idea is at the front of my mind and is the most likely.

  5. ”Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.”

    Now Obama has acknowledged that there is substantial intelligence establishing that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict,” said Feaver.

    Weasel words from Obama to absolutes from Feaver and Daddy Warbucks McCain and Lindsey. What is needed is as independent an investigation from honest brokers, not from vested interests. Not going to happen of course.

    • Given the chaos inside Syria, the probability that chemical weapon record keeping by the Syrian bureaucracy has been less-than-perfect (hell, even the USA has occasionally mislaid nukes) and the capture of numerous military bases by rebels, it should be unsurprising if at least small quantities of sarin or its pre-cursors are in rebel hands by now.

      From the rebels’ point of view, the best use of these materials would be to increase the level of USA involvement in the conflict.

      A separate issue is the possibility that outside interests might ‘seed’ some chemical weapons within Syria, so that they can be ‘located’, and used to pressure the USA into deeper involvement in the region. Would the USA trust eg, Israel not to do this? No wonder Obama is cautious.

      • From the information I’ve seen about the current conflict in Syria, a plurality of rebels believe their own plight will only worsen if the US or any international force is brought into the conflict. Evidence from Iraq and Libya would tend to underline that fear.

        If anyone outside the government does decide to carry out their own ‘false flag’ gas attack to get the US into the war, it is very unlikely to be the real ‘rebels’ (of which there are already several distinct varieties) and more likely to be some kind of foreign secret-service interference for their own benefit.

        God only knows how anyone is ever supposed to know the truth.

  6. “……substantial intellignce establishing that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict.”

    I am sure that Obama and his advisors remember “Curveball” and his “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as well as Colin Powell’s ill-advised speech to the U.N.

    I agree that Sarin is likely being used in Syria, however Obama will most likely take advantage of “wriggle room” where at all possible. Further, I would anticipate only a very measured response by Obama to recent events – with a “boots on the ground” scenario being unlikely.

  7. There have been many things seriously wrong with President Obama’s statement that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would constitute a red line and a game changer. The first and the most serious problem with this is the whole concept of red line diplomacy. When you draw some arbitrary red lines, sooner or later, you will be trapped by them and have to do something about it even against your better judgment, otherwise, you will be regarded as weak and indecisive. The present situation in Syria is one clear example. The other is the arbitrary red line about Iran gaining access to nuclear weapons, or according to the Israelis getting nuclear capability, whatever that means. If it means having the ability to enrich uranium, Iran has already passed that stage. However, the Israelis and the neoconservatives in the United States keep repeating that President Obama has drawn a red line and he must act. So, he has made himself hostage to the warmongers.
    The second problem is verification. After the Iraqi WMD fiasco it is doubly important to be careful about any claim that a country has WMD capability or that it has used it. Again, the Syrian situation is a case in point. In the midst of a civil war, with all sorts of claims and counter-claims by the government and the rebels, it is extremely difficult to verify such claims. There are already many indications that most probably the rebels have gained access to some WMD either from Libyan stockpiles or as the result of overrunning government ammunition dumps in Syria. So, first you draw an arbitrary red line, and then you have to do something about it on the basis of uncertain verification. In this regard, the following article is very helpful in showing the complexities of the issue: link to
    The third problem is what are you going to do about it even if the first two criteria have been established? The situation in Syria is already very complex. The huge amount of weapons and financial aid provided to the rebels by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and to some extent Turkey and Jordan, and non-lethal assistance by the West, if we are to be charitable and believe in their statements, have produced a situation where the Al-Nusra Front and other militant Islamic groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda have gained the upper hand. How on earth is it possible to separate these elements from the so-called moderates and ensure that after the ousting of the regime the nice, friendly guys will come to power and will continue to cooperate with the West?
    The fourth problem is that concentrating on the use of chemical weapons by Syria ignores the possession of such weapons both by other countries in the region and by the West, and the use of banned weapons both by the Coalition forces in Iraq, especially in Falujah, and by Israel during its invasion of Gaza and its massive use of cluster bombs in civilian areas in Lebanon. Concentrating on one country and ignoring the rest is clear hypocrisy and is not going to create a just and law-abiding world.
    Surely, the most sensible thing would be not to arm militant groups and not to fan the flames of war because ultimately there will be a blowback, as we saw in the case of the arming of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan that resulted in 9/11, or arming the Sunni militants in Iraq that has turned Iraq into a scene of continuous carnage. If we were to spend a small part of the effort that we devote to conflict to conflict resolution and tried to bring the sides together the world would be a much more peaceful place. In any case, any action that may be taken must be within the framework of international law and on the basis of a Security Council resolution.

    • Good comment. A line breached is a loss of position and power, an unwise initial position chosen to placate hometown political factions. Except for Cheney who made his own reality and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to double down or have someone pull some trigger. You know where that got him. Make that us.

    • I think it is safe to say that “WMD” does not mean what it used to. When the living Boston suspect was charged with the use of WMD, I Googled the US code referenced in the indictment to see how a pressure cooker, loaded with mild explosives, qualified. It certainly does. Here are the applicable parts of the Code.

      18 USC § 2332a – Use of weapons of mass destruction

      (2) the term “weapon of mass destruction” means—
      (A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
      (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
      (C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
      (D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life; and

      SECTION 921

      (4) The term “destructive device” means—
      (A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—
      (i) bomb,
      (ii) grenade,
      (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
      (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
      (v) mine, or
      (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;

      That pretty much covers every explosive ordinance used in the past several hundred years. So Assad and his adversaries pretty much do WMD on a daily basis. Possibly a very small number of the tens of thousands killed were victims of poison gas.

      So our presumed “red line” marker for intervening in Syria is not that Assad has killed tens of thousands of his citizens with WMD other than poison gas, it’s for killing a small but unknown number of citizens with poison gas. Should he pledge to limit his ordinance to benign types such as cluster bombs, rockets, heavy artillery, 1000 pound bombs etc., he will have avoided pulling us across the “red line”. Add to that the sense that a defeated Assad may not be the best result, and, given our track record, intervention may result in another bloody, costly, no-win humiliation.

      You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

      • Whatever you think about the distinction between chemical weapons and conventional weapons, it isn’t some uniquely American or Obama-ite policy. It’s been written into international conventions and treaties since the 1920s.

    • Your citation of chemical weapons use by other governments being unpunished is well-taken.

      The 462-page U.N. Goldstone Commission Report found credible proof of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Israel Defense Forces during Operation Cast Lead. Among the findings were the use of white phosphorus in an illicit manner against civilians within Gaza.

      Nothing was done to punish the perpetrators. Where was the U.S.?

      Iraq’s use of poison gas against Kurds in Halabja was not punished until “Chemical Ali” was convicted and executed many years later – and only after the Saddam Hussein regime fell.

  8. Gee, why would Feaver posit just two choices for the “Obama administration:” Tough-guy idiocy of the Bush-league variety (“enforce the Red Line” HOW, exactly?), or, “sacrifice U.S. credibility” (like “we” have any of that left, right? as if “credibility” is something you “earn” by kicking in doors or unloading another sh_tstorm of Shock-N-Awe ™)? Not possible for the Really Smart Folks in our Imperial Capital to come come up with some other “nuanced” approach to all this, with an eye toward present conduct that is looking toward a future with some reduced level of violent idiocy and further “advances” of the military monstrosity? Like maybe thinking about repairing our national rep by doing stuff that is consistent not with our “war is a racket” Great Game plots, but with some actual spread, over the long haul, of decent governance and reduction of misery?

    But the neocons continue to whisper in the ear of the powerful, more’s the pity.

  9. This is a very sensitive issue for the US and for the rest of the Middle East. While it is understandable that the US does not wish to get into yet another conflict in this region, at the same time it must ensure that Assad stops any further (or new) use of Chemical weapons. Because if he did use Sarin and was not punished because of the small quantity, he may then see this as a loophole and use it on more occasions to his advantage.

    Meir Javedanfar
    Tel Aviv

    • While it is understandable that the US does not wish to get into yet another conflict in this region, at the same time it must ensure that Assad stops any further (or new) use of Chemical weapons.

      Of course, there’s other stuff beyond It’sAllAboutIsrael that our Great Gamers have to factor into their, er, ah, “considerations,” stuff like those now-Israeli Dolphin-class submarines the Germans were so happy to sell to people who nominally have no reason to love them (though of course there’s that South African apartheid-state connection from not so many years ago to double-flash illuminate things a bit), that per the best-kept not-military-secret have nuclear-armed missiles aboard them. Read all about it, folks, and maybe remember our mutual vulnerability, our daily increasing mutual vulnerability and unwilling interdependence with every ton of coal and cubic mile of methane and megagallon of oil and GM foodcrop and Roundup molecule, and who gets rich off of adding to to REAL terror:

      link to

      Maybe 400 nuclear weapons (alleged, of course, not acknowledged, ready to be “delivered” HOW, in addition to via sub-launched cruise missiles?). The USS Liberty. Jonathan Pollard. “Uncle Freier.” “You must go to war on Iran to keep them from having a nuclear program. And for other reasons.” STUXNET. Assassinations of diplomats. Invasion and conquest and the death-of-a-thousand cuts taking of Gaza and the West Bank. Billions in taxpayer dollars transferred from the US Treasury to where, again, every year? $6 trillion in recent war expenditures on what can only be called “STUPID” from the standpoint of any rational citizen of the United States who is thinking about his or her actual national interests?

      Thanks so much for the advice and counsel. Oh, that was not just a “suggestion?” Oops, I missed the “must” in there…

  10. The Syrian regime invited UN inspectors to vet its claim that the opposition used some kind of gas in the Allepo area. At this point a game starts–as we see with the sec-gen of the IAEA, a national of a regime with a military alliance with the US (Japan) in Iran– the UN sec gen, a national of a nation with a military alliance with the US (SK)insists the inspectors have to go elsewhere in Syria–which Syria refused. So the original site is subject to all sorts of manipulation and reports are confused.

    These games of the “international community” (the US and its friends) are transparent to all but the US media.

    • I see the great flip-flop on the credibility of UN weapons inspectors has began.

      I remember when this sort innuendo was being used by the Iraq hawks to discredit Hans Blix.

  11. Why Meir Javedanfar is this a very sensitive issue for the US? Please enlighten me. “it must ensure that Assad stops any further (or new) use of Chemical weapons. Because if he did use Sarin and was not punished because of the small quantity, he may then see this as a loophole and use it on more occasions to his advantage”. What has all of this got to do with the US? Who appointed the US as the policeman of the Middle East or anywhere other than within it’s own borders for that matter? Is that not what the UN is for?

  12. Just call in Tony Blair to make up a pack of lies in one of his ‘sexed up’ dossiers for you, that’ll do the trick.


    • That depends on what “trick” you want to “do.”

      Have you considered the possibility that, two years after the Syrian uprising began, this isn’t actually a plot by an Obama administration hankering for an excuse to fight another Iraq War, and is actually a chemical weapons problem that an administration which isn’t looking to get into another war has to deal with?

  13. Enforcement of international bans on the use of chemical weapons needs to go through the UN. The flip side of that observation is, it’s not just Obama’s credibility that is at stake.

  14. Approximately 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising started I have yet to see what portion were killed by sarin, but it seems to be very few, if any. What a wonderful gift to Assad it would be if the UN and independent nations, e.g. the US, ordered him to STOP USING CHEMICAL WEAPONS. All of a sudden the focus is on the types of weapons the Syrian Army can use to kill fellow Syrians.

    Assad calls Obama on a secure line and assures he is taking extraordinary measures to insure that chemical weapons never leave the warehouse. He calls other heads of state and the UN Secretary General and gives the same message, and he really means it.

    Red lines go back in the closet, international treaties retain their validity, a win for the community of nations, and an imperceptible decrease in Assad’s military capacity to wage war. If this cause celebre can keep us out Syria, that’s good enough.

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