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Obama's Syria problem

Americans aren't interested in the news from Syria, but Obama may still face pressure to intervene.
Last modified: 6 May 2013 18:03

US President Barack Obama has a problem: he likely has more than a few, but when it comes to Syria - that is a big one. And if you want to know how big, just read between the newspaper headlines this week.

I’ll explain, but first for those who haven't been paying attention - and it turns out that is the case for a lot of Americans - the back story.

For months, Obama has been consistent in his message to the Syrian government. In Israel on March 21st, he said: "I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable."

He was a bit more blunt in January, saying: "I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there where be consequences, and you will be held accountable."

Those are pretty strong statements from a US president; they usually give themselves a little more wiggle room than that. He didn't, and then his administration came out and said they thought chemical weapons were used.

You could probably forgive people for assuming the president would come out within days to say, okay, you were warned; now take this.

As it turns out there is no "this" just yet.

Note of caution

Instead, Obama told the press that he needs time to assess the facts. His note of caution seemed acceptable to most who were listening, at least the ones that remember the run-up to the Iraq war.

The statement from the president that followed and the important point that most people missed was what he said would happen after they have their investigation.

What the president said in a press conference was "What is true, though, is, is that if I can establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game-changer".

It seems to me what Obama is saying is that he needs enough incontrovertible proof before he acts that the entire world, including Russia and China, would need to agree.

I'm not a chemical weapons expert and I don't want to pretend to be one here, but what kind of proof would be needed to convince the world? Is it even possible to get that kind of proof?

So now, reading between the lines. The headline on the Washington Post website that very night read: "Obama preparing to send lethal arms to Syrian opposition, officials say."

It was a poorly written headline; the story said no decision had been made.

It did send the message to anyone who didn't read the article that there was a reckoning in the works, despite what the president said just hours earlier.

Just as interesting was a different angle, the very next day again in the Washington Post website. It talked about a State Department list of the main players in Syria, the most powerful painted in a very scary light to Americans.

You could see it as a coincidence; reporters get information when they get it. Or you might think there is a little fight going on inside the administration.

Different factions

One side trying to force Obama to take action after his threats; the other saying you don't want to do that.

It is possible these different factions aren't trying to sway the president, but the American public.

The latest polls show the majority of Americans aren't following the news out of Syria.

The way this conflict is portrayed in the media, will in large part determine if the American president feels compelled to take additional action.

Right now, he isn't feeling much pressure from a public that doesn't know enough about what is happening to have an opinion.

If an investigation leads to any kind of proof and enough time passes, he may feel pressure from his opponents, here and abroad.

Obama didn't use caveats, or talk about an investigation that the world would accept; he said there will be consequences.

When a US president says that, chances are there will be, if not for someone else, then there likely will be for him.