The U.S. government drew closer to confirming today what many of its allies have long suspected—that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, “on a small scale,” according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“This is serious business,” Hagel added, speaking at a press conference in Abu Dhabi.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against rebel forces has seen him dig deep into his military arsenal, pounding rebel-held neighborhoods with artillery and airstrikes—even in the capital of Damascus—and launching Scud missiles. More than 70,000 people are believed to have died in the war, many of them civilians.
But America has long and loudly drawn the line when it comes to Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. President Obama has called chemical weapons a “red line,” warning last month that their deployment would be a “game changer” in terms of America’s role in the conflict, which to this point has focused on providing the Syrian opposition with nonlethal aid.
In recent months, however, as American allies such as Britain and France have claimed that Assad’s forces likely deployed chemical weapons, the U.S. government has cautioned against a rush to judgment and emphasized a need for firm proof. “We are looking for conclusive evidence, if it exists, if there was use of chemical weapons,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier this week after Israeli officials joined the chorus by claiming that Assad had used the weapons multiple times.
In today’s statement, Hagel stopped just short of confirming these claims—saying that chemical weapons had indeed been used, but leaving the door slightly open as to who was to blame. “The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria,” he said. “We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime.”
The chemical agent in question, Hagel said, was likely sarin, a deadly nerve gas.
“We need all the facts,” Hagel concluded.
Even with its caveats, however, Hagel’s statement, which mirrored a letter sent to members of Congress by the White House today, left many analysts wondering if Obama’s red line had finally been crossed—and if the U.S. government would now be pushed to back up its tough talk.
In issuing its past warnings, says Michael Weiss, a Syria analyst and columnist with NOW Lebanon, the Obama administration, which has been opposed to intervening in Syria, may have thought it unlikely that Assad would turn his chemical weapons on the opposition. “Now it looks as if he did just that, in open defiance of the president’s red line,” Weiss says. “How does the administration reconcile this [fact] with its continued reluctance to intervene?”
Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the Obama administration may have “painted itself into a corner” with the chemical-weapons red line. “If there is proof that Assad has used them, then they would need to respond if they want to stay credible,” she says.
But she adds that room for caution remains. The chaos in Syria makes it difficult to determine with certainty which side fired the weapons—a consideration that would likely weigh into deliberations on stepping up America’s involvement in the conflict. There is also the issue of scale—the reported chemical attacks, while brutal, were relatively small, as Hagel noted in his remarks. “That’s very different than saying that Assad armed his missiles with chemical weapons and shot them into large population centers,” she says. “It could be hard for [America] to justify [getting involved in] another war in the Middle East based on a few small-scale attacks, should there have been a few small-scale attacks.”
The international community’s inaction on Syria to date, she adds, may have emboldened Assad. “I think that’s the lesson Assad and his regime will have taken from this: if it’s OK for us to send Scud missiles into population centers, then why wouldn’t it be OK for us to use chemical weapons on a small scale?”
But Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London, warns that if Assad’s small-scale use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, he may eventually opt for more deadly attacks. “If you allow people to get away with small infractions, it pushes them to get away with larger ones,” he says. “This is the issue that crops up with red lines.”
An official with the U.S. State Department, who declined to be named, says the Obama administration’s red line refers to any use of chemical weapons, no matter how small. As to whether that line has been crossed: “It’s something that we’re still trying to determine.”