Chemical weapons and red lines

US at risk of being dragged into yet another Middle East war.

GWYNNE DYER

Fool me once, shame on you. (The Taliban regime in Afghanistan helped al-Qaeda to plan 9/11. We must invade.)

Fool me twice, shame on me. (Saddam Hussein is building weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We must invade.)

But fool me three times… (The Syrian regime is using poison gas against the rebels. We must help them with arms supplies.) There’s nothing left to say, is there?

President Barack Obama’s administration announced last Thursday (13 June) that it will now arm Syrian rebels, since it has proof that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been using chemical weapons against them. He clearly doesn’t want to do this, but he has been trapped by his own words.

“The president … has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, expanding on Obama’s statement. “He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

But in a further statement on Tuesday, Obama fretted that it is “very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments,” ending up with full-scale US involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Quite right. So how did this very reluctant warrior wind up at risk of being dragged into yet another Middle Eastern war? By making a threat that he never thought he would have to act on.

Last August, faced with constant allegations that the Assad regime was using poison gas, Obama announced that such an event would cross a red line and trigger US intervention in the war. He was just trying to fend off demands at home for instant intervention, and made his promise in the confident belief that the Syrian regime would never be so stupid as to do such a thing.

Chemical weapons were banned after the First World War, partly because they were horrible but also because they made battle even more unpleasant without producing decisive military results. And despite occasional subsequent uses — by Egypt in the Yemen in the 1960s, by Iraq against Iran in the 1980s — the ban has mostly held ever since.

It would clearly help the rebel cause in Syria if they could prove that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons. Indeed, they would make such accusations whether they were true or not. On the other hand, it was most unlikely that the Syrian regime would actually use its chemical weapons. It has such weapons, of course, like practically every other country in the Middle East, but using them would have no decisive effect in the kind of war it is fighting against the rebels. It would simply give the rebels a better argument for demanding foreign military intervention against the regime.

So ten months ago, when he made his “red line” statement, President Obama was confident that Syria would never cross it. It would be particularly foolish for it to use poison gas in the manner that is now alleged: in small amounts, in four relatively unimportant places, causing a total of 100 to 150 deaths. It just doesn’t make sense, either militarily or politically.

In all likelihood Obama’s calculation remains correct today: Assad’s regime has probably NOT used chemical weapons. Yet the American intelligence services, or at least some of them, are telling him that this has indeed happened. Why would they do that?

They may have just been sucked in by the steady flow of rebel allegations that Assad’s troops are using poison gas. Even good analysts can succumb to the line of thinking that holds that if there’s enough smoke, then there must be fire. You think that can’t happen? Remember Iraq?

It can happen especially easily when the analysts or their superiors want it to be true. The rebels in Syria have been losing all their battles recently, undermining the widespread conviction in American government and media circles that the fall of the Assad regime is just a matter of time. So the desire grows in those circles to reverse that trend by helping the rebels directly.

Even if Obama disbelieves the intelligence he is being fed, he cannot reject it openly, and he is shackled politically by his ill-advised “red line” commitment of ten months ago. All he can do now is talk a tough line, while dragging his feet as much as possible on actual action.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

1914
It happened this week in 1914

June 13 - 19: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read