Assad, Syria and Sarin

Evidence has emerged that the Assad Regime in Syria has crossed Obama’s red line and that Sarin Gas has been used. 2013-01-08-assad-990x1024Is this a game changer?

The U.S. intelligence community has uncovered strong evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Several blood samples, taken from multiple people, have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, an American intelligence source tells Danger Room. President Obama has long said that the use of such a weapon by the Assad regime would cross a “red line.” So now the question becomes: What will the White House do in response?

In March, the Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons during an attack on the city of Aleppo. The blood samples were taken by Syrian opposition groups from alleged victims of that strike. But American analysts can’t be entirely sure where the blood came from or when the precisely exposure took place.

“This is more than one organization representing that they have more than one sample from more than one attack,” the source tells Danger Room. “But we can’t confirm anything because no is really sure what’s going on in country.”

What’s clear is that the samples are authentic, and that the weapons were almost certainly employed by the Assad regime, which began mixing up quantities of sarin’s chemical precursors months ago for an potential attack, as Danger Room first reported.

“It would be very, very difficult for the opposition to fake this. Not only would they need the wherewithal to steal it or brew it up themselves. Then they’d need volunteers who would notionally agree to a possibly lethal exposure,” the source adds.

SOD Chuck Hagel held a presser and the war of words between the administration and its critics has begun.

With intelligence showing that chemical weapons have probably been used in Syria, the pressure from the political right for decisive action by the president will only intensify.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long advocated a no-fly zone to stem the bloodshed in Syria that has left more than 70,000 dead, groused to reporters after being notified by the White House of the intelligence that sarin, a lethal nerve agent, has probably been deployed.

“Everything that the non-interventionists said that would happen in Syria if we intervened has happened,” McCain said. “The jihadists are on the ascendancy, there is chemical weapons being used, the massacres continue, the Russians continue to be assisting Bashar Assad, and the Iranians are all in. It requires the United States’ help and assistance.”

The shadow of the war in Iraq looms large for Obama. Without uttering the “I” word, the White House was quick on Thursday to recall the later-debunked intelligence that showed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — the central underpinning of George W. Bush’s rationalization for going to war.

An Iraq-styled boots-on-ground intervention, of course, is not under serious consideration.

But Obama aides make clear that the intelligence community’s physiological evidence that indicates Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a bar too low to merit military action, such as implementing a no-fly zone.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community,” Miguel Rodriguez, Obama’s liaison to Congress, wrote in a letter to lawmakers on Thursday.

The Obama administration is still pushing for a United Nations-led investigation into allegations and aides to the president on Thursday renewed the call for Assad to give the UN more direct access into Syria—something the Syrian president has thus far resisted.

Concerns about the way forward are also coming from Democrats. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Thursday it was “clear that red lines have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger scale use.” But Feinstein also offered concerns about a doomsday scenario emerging as a result of the administration’s decision verifying its suspicion.

“I am very concerned that with this public acknowledgement, President Assad may calculate he has nothing more to lose and the likelihood he will further escalate this conflict therefore increases,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Pundits are also weighing in.  This is from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

If you recall, President Barack Obama drew a “red line” for you: no use of chemical weapons in your brutal attempt to put down the uprising against your regime. Any use of such weapons (even any “moving around” of such weapons) would “change my calculus,” Obama said, “change my equation.” In other words, welcome to the day in which the calculus might just be changing.

Hagel, speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi, said that U.S. intelligence has come to believe — like the Israelis, the French and the British before them — that President Bashar al- Assad’s regime seems to have used sarin “on a small scale.”

I spoke with Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said that he thinks the Obama administration is hesitant to face the truth that the Assad regime has already used these sorts of weapons. “Clearly the administration doesn’t want to see this,” he said. “We have lost the confidence of the Arab League and the Syrian opposition because of our inaction.” Rogers said he was convinced at least a month ago that Syria had used a small quantity of chemical weapons against civilians.

Before we get to the meaning and potential consequences of this horrifying news, a brief primer on sarin, which was invented in Nazi-era Germany for use as a pesticide, and which was most famously used in the Tokyo subway attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995 and against Kurdish Iraqis during Saddam Hussein’s genocide campaign.’

Descriptions of the chemical’s assault on the body follows the section that I highlighted from the Goldberg piece. Another point of view is expressed in the CSM here.

The US reluctance to join with three key allies – Britain, France, and now Israel – in concluding that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons in his country’s civil war confirms President Obama’s consistent wariness about US intervention in the two-year-old conflict.

Beyond that point, however, former officials and analysts are split over why Mr. Obama is so cautious about the issue – he even refused to answer a reporter’s question on the topic Tuesday – and what the apparently high bar the administration has set for evidence of chemical weapons use means.

“It’s a hard call as to whether the administration is trying to avoid something, or if they just don’t have the evidence,” says Wayne White, a former State Department official with experience in Middle East intelligence.

Obama has said repeatedly since last August that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a US “red line” and would be a “game changer” for the US. But now some critics say the president’s caution suggests a moving or “fuzzy” red line.

For some, the president is simply being prudent, especially if the evidence presented so far is “inconclusive,” as a number of senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said. Obama, they add, wants to avoid a rush to judgment that turns out to be mistaken – and which could appear to the world like a repeat of the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the US is being “extremely deliberate” in investigating and evaluating the reports of chemical weapons use. And on Wednesday in Cairo, Secretary Hagel suggested the US would not be rushed to judgment by allies, saying, “Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another.” He then added, “I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions.”

But for others, the reason Obama is setting the bar high – in a situation where incontrovertible evidence could remain very difficult to come by – is because he has no desire to ratchet up US involvement in the Syrian conflict unless forced to.

The danger of this approach, critics say, is that it encourages an increasingly desperate President Assad to test the limits of US reluctance – perhaps even with limited, hard-to-prove use of some chemical weapons.

It seems like these hard choices keep popping up.  There is total carnage in Syria on one hand.  There is a war-weary US on the other.   We’ve seen this president draw lines in the sand before.  My best example is when Obama swore he would not extend the Bush tax cuts for those incomes about $250k.  He signed the law that extended them above $450k.   This history makes it difficult to say exactly what kind of hope the Syrians will have for regime change.

26 Comments on “Assad, Syria and Sarin”

  1. The line was crossed months ago…video proof of chemical weapons have been out, but it was as if people were yelling at the sky and no one responded. The doctor that was amongst the first to verify (patients frothing at the mouth, suffering convulsions, hair dropping off…horrible) hasn’t been seen since, and I suspect he is dead. Then there was some videos that showed the containers, the crates, the suits (chemical) and masks and that at first seem to get some journos attention, then silence.

    I think the game changer is that Russia intel has shared with them what was already in the back channels, that Al Qaeda was moving in, and in essence there could be a more oppressive government than Egypt’s.

    Sad, really because the Syrian people are happy, loving and they love music…we know the Taliban and Al Qaeda don’t…so they will be oppressed yet again by falling into the hands of these evil oppressive extremists.

    The red line had been there a long time ago….

    • bostonboomer says:

      It sounds like the administration is gearing up to intervene, and I do not think that is a good idea.

  2. RalphB says:

    These choices should be very hard as the consequences can be horrific. Any decision about tax rates can’t be compared to the more immediate, and very real, life and death issues when we get involved in a shooting war. There are long-term consequences to a no-fly zone or even arming the rebels. All I can say is Thank Dog John McCain is not president!

    • I hear what you are saying, but I now there is this problem of making the opposition solid and some how extracting the foreign elements that have taken advantage of the lack of concern by other governments. The UN can’t do anything as Assad does what he wants and the Russians and Chinese continue with their support of the his regime because they fear the radical elements. The people are the ones suffering.

      • ecocatwoman says:

        The people are always the ones who suffer in whichever war there is. I wouldn’t, under any circumstances, want to be in the president’s shoes and have to make the decision to sacrifice our forces yet again.

        Personally, I’m horrified at what is happening in Syria, as well as what has happened with our troops & the people of Afghanistan & Iraq. I despise war & wish that reasonable people were in power in every nation on Earth. Unfortunately that isn’t and has never been the case. I also wish I had an answer to this latest development.

        I can’t blame Obama for being wary after what the Bush administration did simply because they wanted to. They “cooked the books” on Iraq and sacrificed an untold number of lives. Call me a wimp, a dove, a peacenik or whatever, I think committing to engage in a war or no fly zones and/or arming the correct resistance is a difficult decision and requires careful & thoughtful deliberation before instead of afterwards. Regardless of Obama’s flaws, I do believe that he genuinely cares about the lives of people, all people. Again, maybe I’m naive, but I have felt his response after Hurricane Sandy, Newtown, the marathon bombing and the West Fertilizer explosions were all heartfelt & sincere. To me that’s his biggest difference from GW and his warmonger pals.

      • RalphB says:

        The general population are going to suffer in any case. It’s the way of the world and we’re not going to change that. People are still dying in Iraq and will continue doing so until they grow too tired of killing each other.

        If there is a reliable non-jihadi resistance in Syria, they haven’t exactly stepped up yet. Then there are the problems with the use of “intelligence” and general unreliability.

    • dakinikat says:

      I was telling that to BB the other day …he’s really going out in a way that’s going to make a sad legacy for him … I think bitterness is eating him alive.

      • RalphB says:

        Personally, I suspect McCain is still looking for some kind of payback for being tortured while a POW. He’s still fighting Vietnam at bottom and that’s a damn shame.

        Anyone who could make a decision to go to war and sleep well at night is highly unqualified to do so. I think McBitter would enjoy it.

  3. mjames says:

    I do not believe a word any of them says. Call me Doubting Thomas. Everyone of these mealy-mouthed pols has an agenda, and this “proof” seems flimsy at best. But it sure is a distraction from our own kleptocracy. And no one in D.C. seems to give a rat’s ass about the people in this country starving to death or dying from lack of medical care because it’s not affordable.

  4. ecocatwoman says:

    dak, as soon as I heard this news today I was hoping there would be a post here about it. Thank you for doing this. I look forward to everyone’s comments. This situation is just so disturbing to me. McCain’s jumping up & down and foaming at the mouth isn’t a surprise, but Feinstein’s response threw me for a loop. I simply cannot comprehend how people seem unphased all too often about death and destruction and practically eager to enter into a war.

    • RalphB says:

      Feinstein is a hawkish Dem and always has been. It helps in decision making if you’ve been shot at a few times. As can be seen, Chuck Hagel is not foaming at all.

      • ecocatwoman says:

        Yes, & I think he was an excellent choice for SOD. Now, I we can only hope that Obama will listen to him & exhibit the strength Hagel showed during his Senate hearings. Logic tells me that Hagel is how a former military man, who has seen combat should behave.

        Ralph, you’ve been there & I haven’t so my observations are from the outside. McCain was a hotshot pilot. He never came face to face when he had to kill the enemy, right? Could that be part of the reason he is so cavalier & anxious to go to war?

        I realize he was a POW, but I remember reading comments from former POWs who were imprisoned with him. Some of them said he cracked & spilled the beans to the Viet Cong. They were going to release him early & he choose not to leave. I always interpreted that as a concern on his part that it would be viewed as if he betrayed his country instead of being heralded as a hero for enduring imprisonment. Maybe it’s not bitterness but guilt that is eating him alive?

      • ecocatwoman says:

        I think what made me suspicious of his touted toughness was when he ran against Bush in the primaries. That McCain initially seemed stalwart and a man of conviction, then he folded under the rumors & the religious Right. He went to Falwell’s (?) college and backed down from his previous stance. I can’t remember the exact details, but that was to me the point at which McCain became just a man who wanted to be president because of the power and prestige of the office, not because he loved his country. If he could have withstood torture and the real possibility of dying in prison as a POW, how could he fold so easily in his political beliefs that certainly wasn’t a possible death sentence?

      • They aren’t going to do anything, it is just noise making. They can’t have people wonder why both the FBI and the CIA blew off the warnings from Russia. I guess they expected photos and an address??? Very disappointing considering we could have insured everyone for two decades with the money that has gone into Homeland Security.

      • RalphB says:

        Connie, You’re right. My brother was a Navy pilot and our experiences were 180 different. He’s now a wingnut who’s a lot like McCain. We haven’t spoken in years and detest each other.

  5. mjames says:

    And what about our austerity budget? And sequestration? Where is the money for this upcoming war? I thought we didn’t have any money. I thought we couldn’t run up more debt. Who’s going to pay? (As if I didn’t already know.)

  6. janicen says:

    This sounds like a UN problem to me. We can’t afford another war right now. Let the allies pony up some cash and weapons.

  7. I rest my case, the Obama Administration has said by ‘doing something’ they meant tell the world about the chemical weapons. Any hoo, Obama has bigger things on his plate like AUSTERITY!