Would Obama send American forces to Syria if a United Nations investigation proves Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has used the nerve agent Sarin in restive towns? And if he would not do so at a time when, in his words, “the tide of war is receding” after more than a dozen years of overseas conflict, would U.S. prestige suffer in the eyes of allies and antagonists alike?
The administration is already behind France, Britain and Israel in asserting that Assad most likely used chemical weapons against his people, and members of Congress from both parties were quick Thursday to seize on the acknowledgment as a “game changer” for U.S. policy. Even public opinion, according to recent polling, suggests that may be the case.
“The administration has confirmed that the Assad regime in Syria has crossed a dangerous, game-changing red line,” House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement, which called on members to attend a classified briefing Friday morning.
The administration has made clear that it has monitored closely allegations of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons use since December, when reports first surfaced. But Obama has sought to downplay them as much as possible, given the consequences facing the administration if true.
On Thursday, Miguel Rodriguez, Obama’s chief liaison to Congress, made clear in a letter to the Hill that the administration will continue to seek a United Nations investigation to determine definitely whether chemical weapons have been used and to what extent.
Doing so buys the administration some time to decide a course of action, even as congressional Republicans raised concern about delays.
“Given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday, “it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty.”
Obama is already facing the prospect of a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program after vowing that he would use all means necessary to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear bomb – something the government there has denied pursuing.
Now he must weigh his potential action or inaction in Syria against his policy toward an Iranian government on the lookout for signs of faltering American resolve. A U.S. military action in Syria would open up a new front in the Islamic world, but it could also serve notice to Iran that Obama means what he says when he draws red lines.
There are also options short of direct intervention, likely far more appealing to the president.