It is telling that Democrats and Republicans view the president as getting “trapped” on Syria. It is evident that he desires to remain inert. The betting, therefore, is he will still — after confirmation of chemical use by Syria — fudge, delay and hedge, choosing minor steps over meaningful action.

Chuck Hagel
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press)

Even worse, Bashar al-Assad seems to be openly defying the president in a show of contempt for the Obama administration. Eli Lake reports:

On Thursday, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), a U.S.-based advocacy organization that has pressed Obama to provide the Syrian opposition with advanced weapons, issued a report that said two chemical weapons attacks were conducted on April 25 in the southern part of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. One doctor working from the Daraya medical center said 75 victims were treated for symptoms including “muscle spasms, bronchial spasms, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and miosis” following a 1 a.m. rocket strike. Another 25 victims were sent to the medical center complaining of similar symptoms when a second attack hit the area at 7 a.m. local time, according to the SSG and a statement from the local coordinating council of Dariya, a media group affiliated with the Syrian opposition. . . .

If the rebel report is true, it is a nightmare scenario for the Obama administration. Democrats and Republicans on Thursday warned that the administration’s cautious approach to confirming evidence of a chemical attack may end up emboldening Assad. In the past year, Assad has used scud missiles and fixed-wing aircraft to attack civilian areas, an escalation from his initial response to the Syrian uprising in 2011.

“Until now our response on Syria has been so late on almost everything, we are not able to shape the environment,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If this report is accurate and Assad has used chemical weapons again today, then our policy to deter him is not working, it’s clear he is escalating his attacks and is becoming more emboldened.”

Lake quotes an intelligence official as saying, “When you have the Israelis, the French, the British and even some of our Arab friends saying this happened, I don’t know what the White House is really waiting for.” The answer is, the White House is looking for ways not to act.

National security expert Eliot Cohen observes via e-mail, ” A ‘red line’ implies a use of force – a serious use of force at that.  If they don’t [follow up on that], then they have to know that everyone will notice, to include Iranians, North Koreans, and Chinese.  On the other hand, my hunch is that they may have few good options for taking these things out, if indeed we know precisely where they all are.” He concludes, “So I’d say that they’re in a fix.”

Responsible lawmakers are practically pleading with the president not to cave. In a written statement, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued:

It is in the vital national security interest of our nation to see Assad’s removal.  He is Iran’s closest ally in the region and a tyrant who has been murdering his own people for more than two years, while threatening regional stability.  We must not allow Assad to continue violating all international norms by using these vile weapons and allowing Syria to descend further into chaos and instability.  This will have disastrous consequences for U.S. interests for decades to come.

I urge President Obama to explain to Congress and the American people how he will ensure Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are secured, how we’ll work with our allies to prevent further use of these deadly weapons, and what additional measures he is ready to take to follow through on his previous statements.

Pyongyang and Tehran will take notice. This president will never act until absolutely forced to do so by our allies, members of both parties and human rights groups. Not only whether he acts but also how strongly he does will be telling.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.