Almost exactly a year ago, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute crossing a “red line.” Then, in June of this year, the U.S. determined that Syria had, in fact, crossed that red line and pledged to send military assistance.
Syria’s opposition is now accusing President Bashar Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus on Wednesday that resulted in mass casualties.
The Syrian government denies the charges and the details are still murky. Still, the killings have raised the question of what additional action, if any, the U.S. and other countries might take.
The international community has frequently condemned the Syrian government, and a number of countries have sent assistance to the rebels. But so far, no country looks prepared to go further than that.
The White House expressed “deep concern,” and urged a U.N. investigation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “at this time we are unable to conclusively determine [chemical weapons] use. We are focused on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.”
The French foreign minister said the international community would have to react with “force,” but excluded sending troops as an option.
The U.N., meanwhile, called for a thorough investigation, and as it happens, a U.N. team recently arrived to investigate previous reports of chemical weapons use.
But the BBC notes that the U.N. Security Council could not agree on a stronger statement because of opposition from Russia and China, allies of the Syrian government.
Syria has denied that it used chemical weapons, but reports show large numbers of dead civilians with no obvious wounds, such as shrapnel cuts. Many survivors have symptoms that appear consistent with a chemical weapons attack.
“The administration will come under increased … international pressure but also domestic political pressure, particularly from Republicans and those in favor of intervention” if the allegations are proven, says Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written about the use of chemical weapons.
“I think it represents a threshold situation where it’s not simply that a red line has been crossed for the United States, it’s that the conflict has moved into a new phase,” he says. “And in a way it could galvanize international action.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last month outlined possible U.S. steps in Syria. But in a letter this week, he said the use of force by the U.S. “would not be militarily decisive.”
Michael Hirsh, writing in the National Journal offered this explanation for Washington’s decision to keep Syria at arm’s length:
“In Syria, the main antagonists are both declared enemies of the United States, with Bashar al-Assad and Iran-supported Hezbollah aligning against al-Qaida-linked Islamist militias. Why shouldn’t Washington’s policy be to allow them to engage each other, thinning the ranks of each?
“And by all accounts, the administration and the Pentagon simply don’t want to risk the ‘blowback’ that could occur if the Assad regime collapses and serious weapons fall into the hands of al-Qaida.”
But, as Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations says, the latest reports of the use of chemical weapons is “not simply a crossing of a red line, but a trampling of the red line.”
“Both on WMD grounds and on human protection atrocity grounds, there would be significant pressure for action,” he says, “and significant justification for action.”