Red lines are in the news.
There’s President Obama’s red line regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad against Syrian civilians, and of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The latter is dependent of the enforcement of the former.
Last August, reacting to intelligence reports suggesting the Assad government might be preparing to use chemical weapons, Obama declared at a news conference that moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus.” Obama thought that his threat would be sufficient to deter Syria from using chemical warfare. Last week, these words bounced back.
On April 23, Israeli intelligence declared that it had found evidence that the Syrian government repeatedly used chemical weapons during March, and was testing the United States to see if Obama would enforce his red line.
Initially, the administration questioned the Israeli report and said it would not leap into the Syrian conflict on what they viewed as inconclusive evidence.
Two days later, the administration reluctantly, qualifiedly agreed with the Israeli assessment, stating the United States believes “with some degree of varying confidence” the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, adding that further work was necessary to establish a definitive judgment.
Meanwhile, on May 5, UN human rights investigators said there was evidence that the Syrian rebels — not the government — used the nerve agent Sarin.
Assuming that the Israelis are correct, as the United States agrees with qualifications, Obama is facing a dilemma of whether to make good on the red line gauntlet he threw at Assad. If he does not, he was bluffing and his bluff was called. Either way there will be ramifications with what The New York Times called “frustratingly few good options.”
The White House knows this, reports the Los Angeles Times: “President Obama softened his threat to Syria over its possible use of chemical weapons, telling reporters that if conclusive proof of such activity emerges, he ‘would rethink a range’ of retaliatory options that might not include military action.”
What was a bright line in the sand is purposely being blurred.
Normally administration-friendly, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus went after Obama, saying he “risks becoming…the hapless substitute [teacher], pelted by spitballs.” According to Marcus, a good president needs a chess master’s ability to think several steps ahead. In the case of Syria, Obama did not.
Marcus’ thoughts were echoed by Jon Stewart, who said, when it comes to Syria, Obama’s not much better than a spineless parent issuing empty threats.
Does an Obama administration threat have any bite? Watching with keen interest is Iran, which is subject to an explicit Israeli red line and an implicit United States red line. Also watching are adversaries like North Korea, China, and Russia, to name a few; client states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan; and interested states like Turkey and Egypt.
But no country is watching these developments closer than Israel, not only because of its border with Syria but for the implications for Iran. When Iran crosses Netanyahu’s red line will Obama have Israel’s back?
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens says Obama is not the only bluffer on the block; Bibi is another:
Until not long ago, Israelis remained prudently coy about whether they would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. More recently, prominent Israelis have voiced doubts about whether Israel can strike those facilities, at least in any way that would make a lasting difference to Tehran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons. Essentially, they’re saying it’s all a bluff.
However, in the past few days, Israel has proved Stephens wrong, at least regarding Syria. Israel reportedly carried out an airstrike targeting a Syrian warehouse storing advanced missiles, much of which are made by Iran and believed to be bound for Hizbullah. It was followed by a strike on a military research center outside of Damascus.
Israel has repeatedly warned that it will not allow Hizbullah to receive “game changing” weapons that could threaten the Israeli heartland. Through its airstrikes, Israel is demonstrating that it is prepared to stand behind the red lines it has set.
Israel has led the way in Syria. Will Washington take notice and follow suit?