Red-Line Risks

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The Houla region in Syria's Homs province is shelled, apparently by pro-government forces, last Friday.

Reports of possible chemical weapons use by Syria’s Bashar Assad regime are serious and need to be addressed.

But they are not a justification for involving the U.S. military in Syria’s bloody civil war, as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have urged.

President Obama has kept his cool so far, but he is in a tough spot because of his previous warnings to Assad that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” requiring a U.S. response. Obama is right to steer clear of military action, but he needs to take stronger measures to confirm the evidence and if necessary mobilize diplomatic action against those responsible.

The first task is to get UN inspectors into Syria to verify whether chemical weapons have been used, and by whom. “What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don’t have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” Obama said Tuesday. “And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has assembled a fact-finding team of experts, but the Syrian government so far has blocked their access. The regime wants to limit the inspections to a site near Aleppo where it claims insurgents used chemical agents.

Ban Ki-moon is demanding unrestricted access to all chemical weapons sites. A compromise solution would be to establish a more limited mandate to examine several specific sites. The Obama Administration should encourage the negotiation of an agreement that gets the inspection team into the country quickly so that they can begin collecting evidence.

It is important to acknowledge that the information available so far is very uneven and limited. The letter the White House sent to Congress reports “varying degrees of confidence” in the evidence and says the uses were of “small scale.” Soil samples from Syrian sites reportedly have been examined by British intelligence, but the results have not been made public.

Most of the available evidence reportedly comes from tissue and blood samples that have been transmitted by multiple handlers. The ‘chain of custody’ of the detected elements and the identities of those responsible remain unclear.

A senior British official told the Financial Times, “What the evidence does not tell us is things like the scale of use, the precise location and whether the sarin was weaponised. We do not yet have that hard information which allows us to make a categorical statement that would be unchallengeable in the court of international public opinion.” Reliable physical evidence from specific sites is still lacking.

It is not clear who may have deployed these weapons. Rebel forces and the Assad regime blame each other for using deadly gases. Some analysts have suggested that the use of chemical shells may have been inadvertent. These and other questions need to be clarified before deciding what actions to take in response.

If the evidence shows that the Syrian government has indeed used these weapons, the Obama Administration should work with key allies and members of Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime. The goal should be to take diplomatic steps that could lead to the adoption of targeted Security Council sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of chemical weapons systems. Hopefully Russia and China could be persuaded to support such measures.

This would be a major diplomatic setback for Assad and would isolate and weaken his regime. None of this will be possible without firm evidence of actual chemical weapons use by government forces.

No justification exists for considering military action.

Crossing that dangerous red line would have severe negative consequences. It could involve U.S. forces in another Middle East conflict and perhaps drag us into the deadly Syrian civil war, worsening an already grave security crisis in the region.

Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause explosions that would release the very deadly toxins we seek to contain. The use of force would squander any opportunity to win Russian and Chinese support for UN action and would hand the Assad regime a lifeline of continued diplomatic support.

The President needs to be more decisive on this issue. He should work through the UN to determine if the Assad regime has indeed used chemical weapons, and if the evidence is confirmed, he should demand immediate Security Council action against those responsible.

David Cortright is the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He blogs at