The political perils of setting red lines

It's a sure bet President Obama rues the day he failed to quantify the degree to which Syria's Bashar al-Assad would have to use chemical weapons in order to trigger a 'game changer' in the civil war, and therefore cross Obama's 'red line'. 

I do not have a solution to the catastrophic crisis in Syria, nor I suspect does anyone reading this or any other column. It seems all options are flawed and the challenge is to find the least flawed option.

And so we watch the death toll mount, the humanitarian calamity intensify and sectarianism stealthily infect what was once considered a ‘moderate’ (yes, read acceptable to the West) opposition to Bashar al-Assad. At least it was a secular possibility to replace a secular incumbent.  

Now complicating the array of flawed options is the spectre of the Assad’s troops using chemical weapons.

Many have long suspected chemical weapons would sooner or later be pulled out as a casus belli for military intervention.

Last August US President Barack Obama announced the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer”, a “red line”. 

The trouble with red lines is they may have to be crossed. Then what?

I suspect Obama’s red-line-use of chemical weapons would be akin to Saddam Hussein’s poisoning of Kurds in Halabja 25 years ago. An estimated 5,000 Kurds including women and children died when Iraqi jets bombed the town with a toxic mix of mustard gas and nerve agents. It must be noted however that Halabja was not considered a game changer by the Bush H.W. administration at the time...but belatedly, and suspiciously invoked by Bush W. as part of his case to invade Iraq 15 years later.

When Obama set his red line for Assad, he somewhat recklessly omitted to include a qualifier in terms of the number of dead that would constitute a change in the game/ Hence he has essentially painted himself into a corner where the danger of kinetic military action lurks. Libya exposed the linguistic gymnastics of kinetic military action as just another euphemism for war. 

A red line can also be taken as a euphemism for military response, and it certainly raises the expectation that something will be done to bring to heel the accused offender.

That ‘something’ has to be more than academic musings on the depth or breadth of said red line.

Are we just on the red line, in the middle of it, reaching the outer edge of the red line, and how big is that red line anyway?

The reasons for US hesitation to rush in to Syria so as to honour the integrity of a presidential red line are many and complicated.

When the possibility of Syria using chemical weapons was initially raised last year it triggered well founded cynicism - “Aha, so that’s going to be the excuse for a military intervention” (or thoughts to that effect). Chemical weapons were thereby set on the table as the perfect justification should a justification be required. Then for months nothing much more was said about them.

Until last week. Israeli defense officials announced with extraordinary certainty that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people on a number of occasions. Curiously the Israelis did not bother to let US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in on the info, despite his being in Israel at the time the officials had made their determination.

Israel’s certainty that Assad has used sarin gas may well be corroborated. Israel has reason to fear - as others in the region and further afield do - that the longer the civil war continues the more of a foothold extremist Islamists will gain, and the higher the chances of Syria’s chemical weapons being made available to Israel’s arch enemy, Hezbollah.

Russia does not believe Assad has used chemical weapons, and questions how the claims being bandied around now could be verified to a standard accepted by all. 

But then Russia is playing its own game here, even while its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (aka Mr No) continues to engage positively in discussions about the potential solutions contained within the Geneva Agreement which the Russians and Americans hammered out for Syria ten months ago.

The French and the British are pretty sure chemical weapons have been used by Assad but like the US they want more, or more precisely, actual evidence.

It’s called talking tough while asking for patience. However sooner rather than later the tough talk loses its potency, and the patience wears very thin when it plays midwife to continuing slaughter and massive population displacement. 

Ironically a team of UN investigators is poised to collect evidence of chemical weapons use following an Assad request for a UN investigation. Assad alleges rebel forces used chemical weapons in an attack on a village just outside Aleppo.

The UN awaits Assad’s permission to enter Syria. 

Then there is the stench of Iraq. 

Chemical weapons are apparently weapons of mass destruction. How they can be such when the armory Assad has turned on his own people, and the firepower the rebels have responded with are not WMDs is beyond me.

Be that as it may, possession of weapons of mass destruction as a (false) premise for invasion and regime change has already once wrecked US credibility in the region (what precious little it may have had anyway). Allowing that to happen twice would be idiotic. 

Financially Obama needs another war anywhere like a hole in the head. Politically he cannot wage another war in the Middle East.

The latest CBS/New York Times poll has 62% of Americans believing they have no responsibility to intervene in Syria, yet Obama is facing mounting political pressure from Republican hawks to essentially man up, concede his red line has been crossed, and take action.

Senator John McCain wants a Libyan-style no-fly-zone and arming of the rebels - whomever they may now be.

Well Senator McCain, there are many countries (read anti-Iranian) who are arming the rebels, and the Americans are training selected Syrian rebels across the border in Jordan. More arms seems to mean more fighting.

As for the no-fly zone, the Syrians have a sophisticated air defence system built by the Russians and it is more than capable of shooting down anything that flies overhead.

Of course McCain has his own red line - no American boots on the ground.

Perhaps what he is really suggesting as the least flawed option is magic.

There is no appetite anywhere for foreign boots on Syrian turf. The French, the Brits and everyone else are reluctant to send in their own soldiers.

While Syrians wait for consensus on the least flawed option for their survival, the prospect of chemical weapons actually being in play has certainly gained the attention of world governments. No doubt for selfish reasons.

In the US it has triggered a tangible introspection on the impotency of the world’s only superpower to lead or even be part of the obligation to protect Syrians under attack from Assad.

While the slaughter continues at least some of the long ago promised humanitarian aid is reportedly now arriving. 

If America can’t stop the civil war, it can at least throw money at the problem in order to appease its own conscience at the very least. 

In the meantime Obama will be hoping against hope that he has not painted himself into a corner from which there is no palatable political exit.

For that he should not expect any sympathy from the actual victims of Assad’s chemical weapons, particularly should even a few be found to exist.