The Obama administration's cautious stance regarding Syria's alleged chemical weapons use has created a dilemma for U.S. policymakers as they seek to investigate the claims, analysts say.
British, French and Israeli officials have charged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against rebel forces.
But the United States has been far more tepid, saying U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
At the same time, the administration said it would “seek to establish credible and corroborated facts” and “fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.”
During a recent news conference, President Barack Obama said the U.S. should not rush to judgment without hard, effective proof.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria,” said President Obama. “But we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened.”
Obama said he must have all the facts before deciding what to do next in Syria.
Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Arms Control Association, a private research group, agreed with the administration’s cautious approach.
“If one is talking about reacting to this in a way that would embroil the United States either on the ground or in other ways militarily,” said Thielmann, “in this very complicated Syrian political situation, we better know exactly what the reason for that is.”
Thielmann said the memory of Iraq and its so-called weapons of mass destruction is very much on the minds of policymakers today.
“In the case of Iraq, we knew a great deal more about Iraq’s chemical weapons infrastructure and even some of the individuals involved as a result of the first Gulf War," said Thielmann. "We had United Nations inspectors in the country. We oversaw the destruction of chemical weapons. We had access to a lot of records.
“We have none of that in the case of the Syrian regime. In relative terms, we knew a lot more about Saddam Hussein and his chemical weapons status at the time of our invasion of Iraq, than we do in the case of Syria, and that should definitely give one pause. We got it wrong even then.”
Bolton: A question of credibility
But other experts say President Obama is backtracking on his earlier statements when he warned President Assad that the use of chemical weapons would be “a game changer” and cross “a red line” that would trigger a U.S. response.
Obama did not clarify what kind of response he was talking about, but for John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the president’s words were unambiguous.
“The clear implication of something being a ‘game changer’ with ‘enormous consequences’ — those are the president’s own words — that was an implication that the United States, together with allies perhaps, would use military force," said Bolton. "I think that’s what everybody understood it to mean.”
Bolton said by not acting, the president damages his credibility and that of the United States.
“Because the implication is that having set a ‘red line’ and then not acting on it, other ‘red lines’ that the president has set are equally tenuous,” said Bolton. “For example, that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons — I think the almost inescapable conclusion both in Iran and Israel is that all options are not on the table. And I think that really is a ‘game changer’ in the Middle East.”
Bolton said in addition to Iran and Israel, North Korea is watching closely to see what action President Obama will take — if anything.