“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama told reporters. “That would change my calculus.”
Officials said the warning was intended as a reminder to Syria of the limits of American patience. But experts said they feared that the president’s remark would be interpreted in Damascus as a signal that the United States would not take stronger action even in the face of the Syrian military’s use of heavy weaponry in a conflict that is in its 18th month.
“I don’t like his formulation at all. It inadvertently tells the Syrians they can get away with anything but chemical weapons,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the nonpartisan Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The unusually direct U.S. warning on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction echoes discussion of the “red lines” that Iran must not cross in developing its disputed nuclear program.
Iran has carefully assembled nearly all the resources it needs to build a bomb without crossing the boundaries that the United States and others have drawn — such as the expulsion of international nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of uranium to levels that would fuel a nuclear bomb.
Christopher Chivvis, a specialist on international interventions at the Rand Corp., agreed that Assad may hear only what he wants to hear.
“It could be read the opposite way,” Chivvis said. He added, however, that Obama might be laying a marker for possible action if U.S. intelligence indicates that Assad does intend to use chemical weapons.
The United States is monitoring at least four known chemical weapons sites in Syria. In addition to concerns about the Assad government’s use of the stockpiles, U.S. officials have expressed fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia or affiliates of al-Qaeda.
A senior Western official said that “no change” has been detected in the location or protection of the Syrian stockpiles and that there is no indication that the Syrians are readying the weapons for use. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
A year after declaring that Assad must leave power, the Obama administration has continued to resist any direct military involvement in Syria’s escalating civil war, saying that even the limited provision of arms could inadvertently make the situation worse.