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Obama ‘red line’ on Syrian chemical weapons gets a bit grayer

President Obama has said Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line.’ Evidence is mounting, but Obama’s desire for an international response throws prospects for action into doubt.

President Obama on Tuesday appeared to rule out any unilateral US intervention in Syria no matter what the ongoing investigation of chemical weapons use there reveals – a position that conforms to Mr. Obama’s strong preference for collective action in the international arena, but one that could also lower the prospects for intervention.

Speaking at a White House press conference, the president said that not the US alone but the “international community” as well has to be confident in the evidence that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons before action can be taken.

Obama again used the word “game changer” to define what the proven use of chemical weapons would constitute for him, but his reference to the international community hinted at what he may be envisioning if intervention becomes necessary.

“If I can establish, in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game changer,” Obama said.

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In a second reference to some eventual collective action in Syria, Obama said a hasty determination of the who, what, and where of chemical weapons use in Syria could make it more difficult to assemble a broad coalition to take action.

“If we rush to judgment without hard evidence,” he said the US “could find ourselves unable to mobilize the international community.”  

Obama’s words stand in stark contrast to the “go it alone” stance of President George W. Bush, who tried to convince the international community to join the US in invading Iraq, but who in the end went ahead with a reduced “coalition of the willing.”

In public comments on Syria, the Obama administration has repeatedly made veiled references to the Iraq invasion – and to the Bush administration’s insistence upon what turned out to be faulty intelligence concerning Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Obama has said since last August that any use or transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” for the US, but he has not specified what US action would follow.

At a lunch with reporters hosted by the Monitor Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of theJoint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon has been preparing a range of options for the president since last year. Asked about the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, General Dempsey said it would be more difficult than in the case of Libya, but he said it could be done.

He noted, however, that recent estimates indicate that Syrian air power is responsible for only about 10 percent of the war’s casualties, suggesting that a no-fly zone might do little to reduce Syria’s violence. The UNestimates that more than 70,000 Syrians have died in the war that started as pro-democracy protests in March 2011.

Obama’s reference to “mobilizing the international community” over proven chemical-weapons use was viewed by some critics as setting an even higher bar for intervention.

Russia and China, which have blocked United Nations Security Council action on Syria, show no signs of softening their opposition to outside intervention. That could force Obama to act outside of the UN – a step he seems reluctant to take – if he ends up with “hard evidence” of Mr. Assad’s regime using chemical weapons.

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In his comments Tuesday, Obama hinted at the justification he might use if he has to do an end run around the UN. If the chemical weapons “genie” is proven to be “out of the bottle,” he said, that could portend “potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians.”

But beyond that, he said, proof of their use “raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in ways that would threaten US security or the security of our allies.”

That sounds like Obama could eventually decide to try to mobilize something less than the full “international community” for a Syria intervention.

One option might be NATO, which served as the umbrella for the Western intervention in Libya in 2011.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to hint that a NATO role in Syria could be part of an international response to proven chemical weapons use.

In remarks to NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Secretary Kerry said NATO partners should “carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat.”