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Syria: Chemical weapons and Obama's 'red line'

Syria: Chemical weapons and Obama's 'red line'
Published 23 Aug 2013   Follow @RodgerShanahan

Following claims of an Assad regime chemical weapons attack in Syria, calls are intensifying (particularly in France) for something to be done in response.

Certainly US social media is intimating that moves are afoot to take some form of limited military action. There is of course the small difficulty of establishing exactly what happened: was there an attack and who conducted it? Trying to establish these facts would appear straightforward given there is a weapons inspection team only 10km away. But its mandate is limited geographically (to pre-agreed locations of previous alleged attacks) and practically (they are only allowed to determine whether an incident took place, not who was responsible for it). Furthermore, the fact that the site of the alleged attack is still militarily contested makes it difficult to access.

In the US there are reports that Members of congress are 'coming around' to the idea of strikes, although a closer reading of their comments shows that they are more concerned with any 'campaign' of CW use rather than localised incidents (no matter how abhorrent). The Wall St Journal reports that planners are updating target lists, which sounds impressive but is part of routine military planning. Most likely it is now being done with more fidelity but it's not an indication that anything is necessarily about to happen.

So what can be done? The UN won't do anything because UN Security Council vetoes are in play. Russia has already indicated that it believes the opposition is to blame if anything did in fact occur. The US could take unilateral action, or Western multilateral action, or get an Arab League resolution for regional cover, using stand-off weapons against selected Syrian military targets with links to chemical weapons. The US doesn't want to tip the military balance because the opposition is full of people whose views are even more antithetical to US values than is the Assad regime (this has always been one of the dilemmas facing the White House).

Of course, talk of limited military action is predicated on establishing with some certainty what actually transpired, which is proving no easy feat. Still, the pressure on President Obama to do something in light of his infamous 'red line' remark is enormous. He may believe that a very limited strike sends a strong message and buys him some time. Of course if he does take such action, there will likely be increased pressure to 'double down' the next time there's an alleged atrocity. This is one of the reasons he is so hesitant about taking sides.

Next week I'll write on why broader US military options regarding Syria are limited to bad ones and even worse ones.

Photo by Flickr user Lynn Kelly Author.

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