Obama's moving red line on Syrian chemical weapons
It's clear that President Obama does not want to get militarily involved in the Syrian civil war. This is good policy to follow given the impossibility of any good outcome from the conflict.
But Obama put the weight of the US government behind his warning that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would result in American action. And to date, despite evidence that the Syrian army has employed chemicals in a couple of attacks, the US refuses to acknowledge this.
Other countries, however, are taking a different view.
American intelligence agencies are reviewing what some officials see as the first credible indications that Syrian forces used small amounts of chemical weapons in recent fighting, senior U.S. and European officials said.
Four senior U.S. officials cited "increasing suspicions" within U.S. intelligence circles that Syrian forces have used chemical agents, based on witness accounts and preliminary testing of samples that were recently taken from Syria and initially analyzed by British experts.
A senior United Nations diplomat said Britain and France have "hard evidence" that chemical weapons were used in at least one case. France and Britain have presented their evidence to the U.N. and the U.S. in recent weeks, diplomats and U.S. officials said.
But some U.S. officials said the samples may have been tainted by rebels who want to draw the West into the conflict on their side. Likewise, they said the detection of chemical agents doesn't necessarily mean they were used in an attack by the Syrian regime.
These officials said that U.S. intelligence agencies haven't reached a consensus and that more testing and analysis is needed.
A senior U.N. diplomat this week said Syrians who had fled the country have testified about having witnessed a chemical attack. He added that Western intelligence agencies had also entered Syria to gather evidence of a chemical attack.
"The Syrians, and especially the Syrian rebels, are traveling across the borders, so when they cross the borders there are human testimonies," the diplomat said. "I could say: We are nearly convinced 100% that in some examples, chemical weapons have been used in a very tactical way."
It is possible that the Syrian army is employing checkical weapons sparingly so that they are effective on the battlefield but not used to the extent that they would automatically set off alarms in western capitals. As long as their use remains ambiguous, Obama will choose to allow the "red line" he set to drift in order to avoid the military problems that would be associated with intervention.
Does this wavering damage US credibility? Ultimately, no. There is still enough ambiguity in the situation that western governments can refuse to act. But it's equally clear that whatver "red line" has been set has moved to accomodate US reluctance to intervene. That can't be good in the long run, but I suppose it's better than getting involved in that bottomless pit in Syria.