Can We Cross Them?

01.19.13

Syria Probes Obama's 'Red Lines'

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My latest for the National Post wonders what Syria must do to cross President Obama's "red lines" and trigger American intervention.

Did the Syrian government gas its own people? Apparently, it depends on the meaning of the words “poison gas.”

For weeks, reports have circulated that the Syrian regime used some kind of chemical weapon in the Syrian city of Homs on Dec. 23. Activists have circulated video of city residents — who may or may not have been noncombatants — apparently choking and gasping.

Was gas used? If so, what kind of gas?

These are important questions, because President Obama had warned on Dec. 3 that Syrian use of chemical weapons would trigger an American response. On the other hand, tear gas might also be described as a kind of “chemical weapon” — and nobody supposes that the U.S. would intervene to stop that.

On Tuesday, Josh Rogin — who writes The Cable blog at foreignpolicy.com — posted excerpts from an investigation signed by the U.S. consul-general in Istanbul. The report concluded that, yes, a “compelling case” existed that the Syrian regime had used a mysterious gas dubbed “Agent 15.”

What is “Agent 15”? It is a much-debated gas, often said to have been developed in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, intended to incapacitate and disorient. British newspapers nicknamed the stuff “zombie gas.” In large doses, Agent 15 can kill, but it’s not primarily intended to kill.

News that Syria may have used Agent 15 raises all kinds of questions, but this one most urgently: Has Syria crossed President Obama’s red line?

The administration itself hastened to deliver the answer: No.

“The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program,” stated an administration spokesperson. As official statements go, that comment is really a thing of beauty: It sounds like a denial, but if you parse it carefully you see it’s in fact a complete non-sequitur.

So the next day, Victoria Nuland, chief spokesperson for the State Department, issued a firmer declaration: “We looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used.”

The rest can be read at the National Post.