LAST YEAR, President Obama established the use of chemical weapons by Syria as a “red line” for US military involvement in that country’s civil war. But before reaching any conclusions now, it’s important to know all the facts — and to recognize that involvement in the Syrian conflict can take many forms, not necessarily including troops.
American military action in another Middle Eastern country, even for limited purposes, should not rest on any automatic trigger, or on the fear that anything but an instantaneous response would blur the red line. It should come only after serious debate. In the case of Syria, there are no easy options. The use of chemical weapons should trigger greater US involvement, because it would violate every norm of civilized nations. But policy still must be based on hard proof and a realistic assessment of the options.
Last week, a UN commission said it could find no conclusive proof that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime had used sarin gas, and one investigator stated that there was some evidence that Syrian rebels may have been responsible for attacks that injured civilians in ways indicative of sarin. Charges and countercharges over chlorine gas are also in play. Sarin is specifically barred by the Chemical Weapons Convention; chlorine is not listed by name, but the mandate of the convention is to keep chemical substances from being used in warfare.
The best evidence at the moment suggests that, so far, Assad has not used chemical weapons in large quantities. The administration’s critics worry that its deliberate, fact-finding approach weakens the premise of a red line — that even a tiptoe by Assad over the established threshold should be met with forceful retaliation. But the United States has known only too well the dangers of going to war because of technical violations of such red lines, and should wait for clear evidence.
Still, it makes no sense to back off the insistence that use of chemical weapons violates international norms. In fact, Assad may be holding off on chemical attacks for fear of crossing the line. While the CIA, UN, and intelligence forces from other nations seek to establish whether, and to what extent, chemical weapons were used in Syria, the Obama administration is rightly assessing its very limited options, including arming the divided rebel factions. If Assad has used significant amounts of chemical weapons, the United States should plan a strong response. But it should be calibrated to send the appropriate message, and consistent with the larger aims of protecting America’s interests.