Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Is Assad calling Obama’s bluff?

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

On Tuesday, Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” published a story on a possible chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces against Syrian rebels two days before Christmas. Rogin’s story was tied to a leaked State Department cable (signed by US consul general Frederick Kilmer) that detailed the Istanbul consulate’s review of the reports of the attack, videos of various individuals in distress, and Rogin’s own interviews with two doctors who reportedly treated the victims of the attack. According to Rogin, “An Obama administration official who reviewed the document, which was classified at the “secret” level, detailed its contents to “The Cable.” ‘We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23.’” (My AEI colleague Danielle Pletka has written here about the paucity of follow-up to this story.)

But then Wednesday, according to Reuters, when asked if the administration had any reason to believe Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, the State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, ”No.” Ms. Nuland went on to say: “When this particular message came in from Consulate Istanbul, we took it seriously, as we do with all such anecdotal reporting, and concluded at the time that we couldn’t corroborate it. We haven’t been able to corroborate it since, either.”

Not to make too fine a point of it, but not being able to “corroborate” something is not the same thing as believing it didn’t happen. And of course, the distinction is important given the fact that both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have stated that the “red line” the Syrian government could not cross without the US taking military action was the use of such weapons. Better to say one can’t prove something than have to back up a warning that you presumed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would never test you on.

It’s possible, of course, that Syrian forces did not use chemical weapons. But it’s equally possible that Assad is testing Obama’s resolve with a discrete use of a chemical weapon that does not murder in massive numbers and is used in a part of Syria in which Western observers are few. If so, Assad has now gotten his answer: the Obama administration will do everything in its power to avoid intervening. And while one can debate the wisdom of intervening in Syria and/or what that intervention should consist of, if indeed the Syrian military did use chemical weapons, the signal being sent to both Damascus and, no less important, Tehran, is that this is a president whose bluff can be called.

7 thoughts on “Is Assad calling Obama’s bluff?

  1. I don’t understand what the President is trying to do here. He intervened in Libya for a lot less. Is he worried about a Russian reaction?

    • No. He is worried about making the same type of stupid error that he made in Libya. While Gaddafi was a very bad man the people that the US and NATO armed were just as bad if not worse. They may now have a new government but that government can never be legitimate because it is seen as being put into place by outsiders meddling in what should be Libyan affairs.

      Obama should not aid in the destruction of ancient Christian communities by helping to put into place an Islamic regime that would like to see their extermination. Of course, it is doubtful that he will do the right thing because he is just as morally bankrupt as Bush and Clinton were and likes the idea of distracting voters by giving them a foreign conflict to cheer.

      • Gaddafi was great man honestly. And NATO’s intervention was all about ripping off Libya, they can’t fool Russia/China again to whether agree or abstain from UN resolution anymore.

        • Gaddafi was a thug who was used by the US and NATO to torture suspects believed to be sympathetic to al Qaeda. The invasion was about overthrowing him even if NATO had to support radicals who were worse than he was and clearly not as tolerant of other religions as Gaddafi was. When the regime fell weapons found their way to thugs on both sides of the conflict. Some of his forces packed up those weapons and went home where they tried to create a new government in Mali. In response the French, who are worried about mineral rights held by Areva and other French companies, decided to attack the rebels. When Algeria allowed French jets to use its air space groups of extremists decided to attack a gas plant where foreign workers were killed. (Mostly by the Algerian military.) They call this blowback and it is the unintended price paid by the US and NATO for the stupid attack against a country that was contained.

  2. This piece is absolutely hilarious!

    “But it’s equally possible that Assad is testing Obama’s resolve with a discrete use of a chemical weapon that does not murder in massive numbers and is used in a part of Syria in which Western observers are few.”

    That’s right folks. With this tyrant’s head an inch away from rolling down a Damascus alleyway, what Assad is REALLY concentrating on is “testing” the President’s “resolve.” Between that and deciding how he wants his lamb shank prepared, Assad has nothing else to think about.

    What a collection of loons. They’re not called “wingnuts” for nothing.

    To answer Mr. Murphy- you will note the requisite absence of oil in Syria, hence, our lack of interest in intervention. It’s their country, let the rebels fight for it.

    • Dear Mr. Planck:

      “… equally possible…” does not mean as you write it, “…Assad is really concentrating on…” which advances your missive to the most amusing on my screen.

      “…equally possible…” is most certainly no more speculative than your observation regarding oil deposits in Libya as a factor in ‘leading from behind’ in that country.

      Both of your contentions are stated as proven facts; which they are not but posited as such in a manner we might predict. Reason, my progressive muchacho is your friend; take him with you on your travels!

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