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Red Line Crossed—Now What?

After months of trying to deny the undeniable—namely, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons—the White House finally ended its equivocating today and admitted it. 

Today’s official White House statement says:

Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.  Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.  The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

Moreover, the White House lays blame for the use of these weapons squarely at Bashar Assad’s door. “We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons,” the statement goes on. “We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”

The statement also reiterated what Obama had previously said: “The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons—or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups—is a red line for the United States, as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons.” But Obama has never said what he would do if Assad crossed this red line, and today’s statement does not provide much new information.

Here is what the Obama administration announced by way of concrete actions: “the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.”

That’s it? No announcement of air strikes on chemical-weapons stockpiles or other government targets. No imposition of a no-fly zone. Not even an announcement that emergency shipments of arms would be rushed to the rebels.

All Obama is doing in response to the crossing of the red line is providing more “non-lethal assistance” and also authorizing an unspecified “expansion” in U.S. assistance to the rebel military command. Administration officials say that means arms will indeed be provided but what kind, how many, or how quickly–all remain unknown.

This rethinking of Obama’s opposition to helping the rebels is welcome. But based on the administration’s dilatory track record on Syria, there is cause to fear that U.S. support to the rebels will not be sufficient to stop the onslaught by Assad and Hezbollah forces, assisted and financed by Iran, that has already reclaimed the town of Quasayr and now threatens to retake Aleppo too.