Iraq looms large as wary Obama warns Syria over chemical weapons

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

“A whole bunch,” meet “systematic.” President Barack Obama's cautious stance on the conflict in Syria shone clearly Friday as he warned President Bashar Assad that “the systematic use” of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels would trigger a forceful American response.

Back in August, Obama bluntly warned Assad’s regime that while he had not “at this point” ordered an American military response to Syria's civil war, “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

When it comes to chemical weapons, what is "a whole bunch"? What does "systematic" mean? The White House has carefully refused to define either term precisely, keeping the president's options open. Republicans have called for a far more forceful U.S. role in Syria, notably by arming the rebels and establishing "safe zones" to protect the opposition or Syrians fleeing the fighting.

In 2008, Obama used his opposition to the Iraq war—and Hillary Clinton’s initial support for it—as a potent weapon to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. The flawed case for toppling Saddam Hussein looms large now as the president wrestles with the U.S. response to signs that Assad’s iron-fisted regime used chemical weapons in Syria’s two-year civil war. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000 people.

“I think all of us, not just in the United States but around the world, recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations,” Obama said as he met Friday in the Oval Office with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The president’s comments came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the White House revealed that U.S. intelligence believed Assad had used chemical weapons, specifically the deadly nerve agent sarin, against opposition forces in the country's ongoing civil war.

On Thursday, the White House disclosed that "our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence" that Assad's regime had used sarin. But top officials—from Hagel on down—warned that those findings did not mean that Assad had now crossed Obama's "red line" or that American military action might be imminent. Instead, they said Washington will now work with its allies, Syria's opposition and the United Nations to build what one top Obama aide called an “airtight” case.

"These are preliminary assessments; they’re based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used," Obama said Friday, vowing "to make sure that we are investigating this as effectively and as quickly as we can."

"But I meant what I’d said, and I will repeat," he said. "Horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed, to use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law. And that is going to be a game changer."

"We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately. But I think all of us, not just in the United States but around the world, recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations," he said.

Just how big a factor is the March 2003 invasion of Iraq? A senior Obama aide, briefing reporters Thursday on a conference call arranged by the White House, made repeated references to it as a reason to tread cautiously.

“I’d say that given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty and that we are able to present information that is airtight in a public and credible fashion," he said. "That is, I think, the threshold that is demanded."

White House press secretary Jay Carney sharply rejected any notion that Obama might show more "leniency" on weapons of mass destruction because of the Iraq War. "Absolutely not," he told reporters at his Friday briefing.

"The fact is that we do have some evidence and we need to build on that," Carney said. "The precedent you cite I think is a significant one, and it simply stands to reason that the assessments that we make, the intelligence community makes, are extraordinarily valuable, and they do excellent work, but they are building blocks towards a broader objective here, which is the accumulation of concrete evidence—evidence that can be corroborated, evidence that can be presented and reviewed and then acted on if the conclusion is that a red line has been crossed."