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What is Obama’s red line on chemical weapons and what happens if Syria crosses it?

An embassy employee prepares a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a press conference by Bouthaina Shaaban, a cabinet-level adviser to the Syrian president, at the India Islamic Centre in New Delhi. (AFP/Raveendrandra Veendran)

They sound like straightforward questions but, particularly in the latter case, they're not. The answers to both are becoming much more important now that it looks as if the administration's red-line against the use or transfer of Syrian chemical weapons may have been crossed. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies have “varying degrees of confidence” that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have used sarin, a chemical weapon, “on a small scale.” (My caveats on the report are here.)

1. What, exactly, is President Obama's red line on Syrian chemical weapons?

Either Obama or a member of his administration has articulated the red line on six different occasions. The one that seems to best represent the average of these statements is Obama's March 21 comment, "We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists."

This latest report doesn't seem to indicate anything about transferring the chemical weapons to terrorists or other bad guys. So the operative question is, what constitutes "the use of chemical weapons"? The first time Obama articulated his red line, he defined it as Syria using chemical weapons "a whole bunch," which seemed to suggest that his standard was widespread use. And it's hard to miss that all subsequent red line articulations have referred to "the use of chemical weapons," rather than "any use of chemical weapons."

I realize that this parsing seems silly, but it gets to an important question: does Syria cross the red line the first time it uses a single drop of chemical weapons? Or does it cross the red line when it starts using chemical weapons widely or regularly? Given that the White House's letter to senators on the intelligence estimates says that a "small amount" of sarin may have been used, the question of whether or not there's a one-drop standard could be relevant.

Another question: Do the chemical weapons have to be used by Syrian regime forces following orders from Assad or some other senior leader? If it turns out that chemical weapons are used by some rogue colonel, does that count? What if anti-Assad rebels storm a chemical weapons facility and use them?

Obama's red line is actually a little clearer on this issue. Or, rather, administration statements seem to pointedly avoid setting a standard that some specific actor or group has to order the weapons' use. Five of the six red line statement do not set a standard for who uses the weapons; they merely say that "the use of chemical weapons" would cross the line, suggesting that who deploys them or orders them deployed is not central to the U.S.'s standard. That would make some sense: better to hold everyone to the chemical taboo, and to give the regime incentive to make sure that none of the weapons go loose. Still, the Dec. 14 statement warned against "use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime," so maybe we're just meant to assume that the red line is only pointed at the regime.

2. What happens if Syria crosses the red line?

You can bet that a lot of people will call on the U.S. to intervene militarily and warn that it will lose its credibility if it doesn't. But it's not clear that the administration has promised to do that if its red line has crossed, or really to do much of anything.

The two times that Obama personally articulated his administration's red line, he used pretty vague language on what happens if Syria uses chemical weapons. The first time, in August, he said, "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation." The second time, in March, he said "we will not tolerate" chemical weapons use and "the world is watching, we will hold you accountable."

So, in the first comment, Obama only said that he would change how he thought about Syria and, in the second and more recent statement, seemed to shift from talking about how the U.S. would respond to how "the world" would respond. And if "the world" means the United Nations Security Council, which authorizes any multilateral military action such as the 2011 military intervention in Libya, then that's not much of a threat. Both Russia and China have the ability – and a demonstrated willingness – to veto any UN action on Syria. There's little indication that either state has changed its calculus on Syria just because of the U.S.'s red line.

The letter that the White House sent to senators Thursday articulating the intelligence findings on Syrian chemical weapons said that the administration is "pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." That seems about consistent with the Obama administration's approach to Syria over the past two years, which has often emphasized diplomacy and working through the United Nations.

So what does that all means?

Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell put it better than I can:

And even if the White House does go ahead and decide that Obama's murky, pinkish-reddish-orange line has in fact been crossed, it doesn't seem prepared to do much about it. The plan is to press for a United Nations investigation of the alleged chemical-weapons use, not to fire up the B-52s. The odds of Assad letting that happen are extremely low, not to mention the time it would take for an investigation to reach a clear conclusion one way or the other. And even if an investigation does conclude that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people, does anyone still think Russia and China are going to dump Assad and authorize some kind of response through the U.N. Security Council?

Something could change. Maybe the Obama administration decides, or is pressured to decide, that the U.S. needs to take unilateral action. Maybe Moscow decides it doesn't want a client state on the Mediterranean after all and approves a UN Security Council resolution for multilateral action. Maybe the the UN somehow gets in chemical weapons inspectors, they find something definitive and then that changes everything. Any of those things could happen. But none of them is very likely.