Should the United States and its allies become directly involved in Syria’s civil war, historians may well look back at Thursday’s announcement that the regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people as an important inflection point. In truth, the Obama administration has already been quietly increasing its assistance to the Syrian rebels for months, as red flags continue to mount indicating that the cost of doing almost nothing about Syria has steadily begun to outweigh the risks of doing more.
Confirmation by the U.S. intelligence community (with “varying degrees of confidence”) that Syria has crossed a clear administration “red line” by using the deadly nerve agent Sarin, however, will almost certainly steepen the trajectory of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
“Given our own history relating to intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, it’s very important to establish the facts with certainty, and insure that the intelligence that underpins our decision-making is airtight,” said a White House official. “If we reach a definitive determination that the 'red line' has been crossed, based on corroborated evidence, then we will consult our allies, the international community, and the Syrian opposition about the best course of action. Suffice to say that all options are on the table.”
After consulting with close allies in the region about the apparent use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration will only feel greater pressure to act decisively, up to and perhaps beyond assisting in the arming of the Syrian rebels with more sophisticated anti-air and anti-armor weapons. For months officials from Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf monarchies have argued that the conflict in Syria is destabilizing the entire region by inflaming the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide, empowering Islamic extremists groups fighting under the opposition banner, and by sending hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring over Syria’s borders in every direction.
President Obama met Wednesday with the senior leadership of Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East that hosts a U.S. airbase and has taken the lead within the Arab League in assisting the Syrian rebels. Speaking at a Brookings Institution dinner Wednesday night, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani gave a preview of the advice the administration is receiving from its regional partners.
“We have laid down a lot of red lines before Assad, and he has gone from using bullets, to tanks, to airplanes, to rockets, and now he’s used chemicals. He is testing our limits, and if there is no reaction, he will continue to escalate,” said al-Thani. [The United States] says to us, ‘Don’t send the Syrian opposition weapons,’ but there are other countries helping Assad with weapons.”
Qatar’s message during two days of talks with senior Obama administration officials was simple: “We need to do something,” said al-Thani. “I’m not saying you need to send in troops or take direct military action, and I won’t go into details in public. But we need to act together seriously to stop this killing.” Assad has a single strategy, he said, and he has not deviated from it. “Kill and kill and kill, until he wins.”
Administration officials note that in recent months the United States has already doubled the amount of its assistance to the Syrian opposition. That includes $400 million in humanitarian assistance, and $250 million funneled to the Syrian rebels fighting on the ground in the form of nonlethal aid such as body armor, field medical kits, and communications equipment. The CIA is also reportedly training members of the Syrian opposition at bases in Jordan.
News that the Assad regime has apparently used chemical weapons, however, has already intensified calls from hawks in Congress and allies in the region for much more dramatic measures. Contingencies being considered include establishment of “safe sanctuaries” or buffer zones inside Syria to relieve the flow of refugees fleeing over the country’s borders, and a U.S.-led coalition to impose a no-fly zone on Assad’s military aircraft, much like the NATO-imposed no-fly zone that helped topple dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi during Libya’s civil war in 2011.
“We have pressed the Obama administration to lead more forcefully on Syria for many months, because you are the only country that can do it, and the longer you wait the more that radicalism will take root in the region,” said the ambassador of another close U.S. ally in the region. Allies understand the administration’s hesitancy to become involved in another war, he said, but left unresolved the Syrian civil war will plunge the entire region into a spiral of instability and conflict. “Believe me the problems this unchecked violence is creating will eventually suck the United States into the conflict anyway as your interests are increasingly threatened, but if you continue to hesitate, the costs will be much higher when you finally act.”