Is the U.S. Set to Intervene in Syria?

AP Photo/Jim Watson

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria.

The chances of U.S. intervention in Syria just got higher. This morning, the White House released identical letters it had sent to Senators Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, both of whom had written to the administration in March urging “more active steps” to stop the killing in Syria, stating that “our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale.”

This comes two days after the head of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence research and analysis division said that Syria had used sarin gas against its people. Speaking to reporters about the letter in Abu Dhabi, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the use of such weapons “violates every convention of warfare.”

So what happens now? The White House letter was unspecific on next steps, though it did include a subtle if unmistakable cautionary reference to Iraq: “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.” 

Last year, President Obama stated that use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was a “red line” for the U.S. He reiterated this in March, saying that use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime “would be a game-changer.” In a press call Thursday afternoon, a White House official said that it was too soon to say whether the president’s red line had been crossed and that the administration was in the process of corroborating the evidence of chemical weapons.

Even though the acknowledgment was carefully hedged, as a political matter news has already raised the temperature on calls for U.S. intervention. But how this news might affect the strategic calculation of the Obama administration is a different question. 

“I think it changes calculations significantly, for two reasons,” says Peter Juul, a policy analyst (and my colleague) at the Center for American Progress who has studied the Syria conflict closely. “First is the red line issue. President Obama stated quite clearly on two occasions in August and December last year that there would be severe consequences for the Assad regime if it used chemical weapons.” Syria’s relationship with Iran, and the president’s own commitment to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon further complicate the issue. “The fact that the Assad regime is so closely tied with Iran, and President Obama’s claim that he doesn’t bluff when it comes to a potential military strike against Iran’s nuclear program winds up making the consequences of failing to back up the chemical weapons red line more severe.”

Second, Juul says, the U.S. has an interest in enforcing international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. “Since the mid-1920s chemical weapons have been taboo—not that they haven’t been used by Mussolini in Ethiopia, the Japanese during a battle in China, or the Egyptians in Yemen, but the only major use of chemical warfare has been by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians and his own Kurdish population in the 1980s.” The use of chemical weapons in Syria would be the first time they’ve been used since the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed in 1993, Juul notes, “so maintaining the taboo here is important.”

All of which points to the likelihood of stronger U.S. action on Syria. In the short term, that could mean a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Syria to allow inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), who have been waiting in Cyprus, into the country to collect evidence. It could also mean encouraging Russia, which has continued to be supportive of Assad, to make clear to its client that any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. 

The Iranian response will also be key. Iran has made a huge deal over what it sees as the international community’s turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, so it will be interesting to see how it responds if confronted with evidence that its ally is now doing the same.   

Beyond that, it’s still unclear what good options the U.S. and its partners have in addition to measures already being taken. “A negotiated transition that takes Assad out of the equation, while highly remote, is the best option from a U.S. perspective to halt the fighting and relieve the stress on our allies and partners in the region,” says Juul. “Beyond that, backstopping those partners, particularly Jordan”—which is dealing with an influx of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees—“will be critical given the cracks that are starting to show in their societies. This could take the form of a NATO or other multinational humanitarian mission to relieve the strain on Amman’s resources. But it’s really not clear what constitutes ‘best’ options right now.”

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