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Obama's options on enforcing the red line

After chemical weapons attack, likely US action will aim to change the regime's mind, rather than the regime itself
Last modified: 27 Aug 2013 20:30
Obama does not want "boots on the ground" [AP]

You can learn a lot from US politicians by paying close attention to their words.  Actually in this town, they are so good at leaving themselves wiggle room with couched words and phrases, you can often think a politician said something only to realise later there was that one word that qualified everything, you just didn’t catch it at the time.

That helps explain why Monday was such a strange day by Washington standards. A statement by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, seemed to leave no one in doubt that the US would take action in Syria, and soon, over the use of chemical weapons. He said there would be consequences for such a “moral obscenity”.

The wiggle, it seems, had left the building.

I can’t say that for certain, because Barack Obama's administration has changed the rules of the Washington game on the issue of Syria.  It was more than a year ago that Obama repeatedly warned President Bashar al-Assad that any use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line". 

Planted stories by the administration seemed to argue later that the president went further than he was meant to with that very definite and suggestive phrase.  I never really bought that - he said "red line" repeatedly.  He did not equivocate. 

It is odd then that a few months ago, after stating Assad had used chemical weapons, the US responded by supplying rebels with small arms. On the scale of what it could do, that was the lowest risk option with the least impact.  It didn’t match the threat - a "red line" is usually used to describe direct military action. The Obama administration basically said that was not their definition.

What happens next?

So here we are again, with the Obama administration issuing what seem to be very definitive threats.  What will the president do now and next? The thinking in Washington seems to be that the US will use cruise missiles against Syrian military targets. 

Let’s be clear: no one is talking about going after the chemical stockpiles. I’m told by experts you can’t destroy those from the air without a very high risk of creating an uncontrollable cloud that would spread death and unimaginable pain with the wind.  

I’ve covered the US military for years and after a while you get to understand how its leaders think. I believe the first question they asked the president was what he wanted to accomplish.  If his answer was to change the direction of the war - to give opposition fighters the momentum to eventually topple Assad - a limited cruise missile strike would not have been their suggestion.

No one here expects such a strike will change the course of war, but they do hope it will change Assad’s thinking.  If he realises he will be penalised, the hope is that he will refrain from using chemical weapons in the future.  I should point out that the US has yet to explain why it is so certain the Syrian government ordered the chemicals to be used. 

The other option the US could pursue is a no-fly zone.  However, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has very clearly said that is not a good idea. He has written that it would not decisively change the war, but it would decisively commit the US to it. 

The one option the White House says it isn't considering is "boots on the ground".  That is how they describe a conventional war.  It doesn’t mean that there are not any CIA officers or special forces troops already on the ground - their boots are special so they don’t count. The bottom line is that the president is not considering replaying Iraq or Afghanistan in Syria. 

No public appetite

Americans have seen the videos of victims of the chemical attack, the same videos that the secretary of state said he was unable to get out of his head - but they still do not want the president to intervene in Syria.  In a recent poll, 46 percent of those asked said even with the use of chemical weapons, the US should stay out.  This is a war-weary country that is still involved in another war.

This, however, is likely one of those times when the US president will not decide what to do based on opinion polls; foreign policy doesn’t usually meet that standard.

He is likely going to be judged by the standard that he himself set.  As the very influential New York Times editorial said on Tuesday, "President’s should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through."

We have a few basic questions in journalism.  The administration seems to be saying it knows the 'who', 'what', 'where' and 'when' about the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

However, 'why' Assad would use them while hosting a UN inspection team isn’t being addressed publically. 

The administration has answered 'why' the US should get involved - it's in the US interest to make sure chemicals weapons are not used in the future. That leaves the question of 'how' it will accomplish that, and it seems we will have that answered in the coming days.