Obama's thick red line on Syria

US President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn at the White House 22 August 2013 The US president is reticent to intervene, and there is little domestic pressure to do so.

A year ago President Barack Obama gave a speech saying that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons, that would cross a red line and change his calculations.

Has that red line now been crossed?

The simple answer is that we don't yet know.

While a White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, has said the US is "appalled" by "horrifying" reports from Syria, it doesn't seem Mr Obama is inclined to pronounce.

Mr Earnest called on the Assad government to co-operate with the UN inspectors in full.

But asked if reporters would hear from the president while he is on a bus tour about lowering the cost of higher education, he said, "as we're weighing these domestic policy decisions, and as we're weighing these foreign policy decisions, the president puts the interest of the United States of America first.

"And I think the fact that we are doing this bus tour is an indication that the president has his priorities straight"

I think that means no, the president does not want to talk about Syria.

We've lost another opportunity to find out more about the administration's approach.

The president's main military adviser has cancelled a planned news conference. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey was due to answer questions at the foreign press centre.

Perhaps he's had to call it off because he is busy planning what happens next in Syria.

Perhaps not.

'Many sides'

He seemed pretty clear in a recent letter to a congressman that military action was undesirable.

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Gen Dempsey said.

"It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not.''

But President Obama clearly has a problem, and will be accused of inaction and dithering.

Senator John McCain says Mr Obama blurred his own red lines earlier in the summer by not responding militarily to reports of attacks and so encouraged this latest incident.

Sen McCain has just issued another statement:

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The fears on Capitol Hill are not reflecting any sense of fury in America”

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"Our friends and enemies alike, both in the Middle East and across the world, are questioning whether America has the will and the capacity to do what it says.

"This dangerous development impacts the national security interests of the United States and our closest allies, and if we continue to sit by passively while Assad continues to use chemical weapons against his own people, we only provide encouragement to other brutal governments in their use of harsh measures against their own people.

"It is time for the United States to come to the assistance of the Syrian people."

No American outrage

Our own Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen is forthright that this is a critical moment and Iran will be watching careful to see if Mr Obama sticks to his threat of military action.

But my strong feeling is that Mr Obama will not rush to action.

His whole philosophy warns him against intervention in the Middle East. Domestic politics suggest Americans don't want to get involved.

Getting embroiled would rather undermine his boast to be the president who brought the troops home.

Then there is Gen Dempsey's point - whom would the West support if it did take action, and would that further its overall interests?

There may be a tipping point when moral outrage grows too strong.

I would again caution that while that may be the mood in the UK and France, it is not here. The fears on Capitol Hill are not reflecting any sense of fury in America.

I am certain there are plans for the discreet use of special forces to secure chemical weapons - but it is not clear what the trigger would be.

In either case, Mr Obama is likely to insist on going the full UN route to gather the maximum possible support for any action - and that means waiting for the inspector's report on earlier incidents at the very least.

I could be very wrong. The bombers could be in the air by this afternoon.

But at the moment all Mr Obama plans for today is a talk about the cost of college education and "a better deal for the middle classes".

I suspect his red line is very thick indeed.

Mark Mardell, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    If you want to know whats needed to deal with Assad just read my name!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Good read Mark

    I am just curious if you think the problems in Syria maybe beyond Obama administration, in my opinion they are, I cant help but remind you that
    Ecclesiastics 3:8 'A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.'
    The bible tells us that an equaliser is imminent as there is time for everything

    This maybe after the Obama regime !

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    "I would again caution that while that may be the mood in the UK and France, it is not here. The fears on Capitol Hill are not reflecting any sense of fury in America."

    It is not the Mood in the UK either. The only people who want intervention are politicians. No one else wants us to get involved because the whole situation is a mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    McCain is an idiot. When he writes ""It is time for the United States to come to the assistance of the Syrian people," I wonder if he does so while contemplating the way we "helped" the people of Iraq -- or his own memories of how we "helped" the people of Vietnam?

    If the US moves in Syria, it must be as part of a collective action by the West and its Mid East friends (if any).

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    15. Zach

    Over 100,000 people are now dead so doing continuing to do nothing makes the whole civilised world look weak and ineffective in confronting those that murder and maim with impunity. It is easy to make arm chair decisions in the relative safety of your own home however if you were in Syria with your children you would want this madness brought to an end.This cannot go on anymore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I've watched scores of videos relating to this latest episode

    Many are fragments of others, but all seem to show the same pattern

    30 to 50 children and around 100 men, indicating many hundreds of casualties

    But where were the mothers, sisters, aunts and grannies?

    One would expect to see women grieving for their loved ones being carried into the make-shift hospitals - but I only saw one or two

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    In theory, this is where collective action/intervention via the UN would be desirable. With the Syrian opposition fragmented, there is no good option for America. On the other hand, can we all allow such a precedent for the blatant use of chemical weapons in conflict? There must be severe repercussions, otherwise their use will grow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Why are chemical weapons seen as worse than conventional weapons? Sure, they kill indiscriminantly and in a horrible manner, but how is that any different to dropping bombs on civilian areas, like we & the US have done in Iraq? Lying dying in a collapsed, burning building is hardly a better fate than dying from horrible chemical burns.

    Or is our method ok because we're the "good guys"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Why would Syria use 'chemical' weapons on civilians.. in a war against terrorism they are clearly winning, why would they use them when UN observers are in the country. A nasty war where the truth is being blurred by lies and propaganda and dirty tricks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I agree, a complete debacle that we are afraid to take action against assad. Personally on the doorstep of europe I regard the use of chemical weapons fullstop a violation of what is acceptable. Children dying in massive amounts and in indescriminate and brutal fashions day in day out for years right under our noses - nows the time to recover these weapons and get rid of them, take out assad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Keep out, stay out, and don't go in there ! (Look what happened in 1914!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    11 White Republicans didn't trust Romney and he lost, maybe because he was Mormon, or maybe because he was worse warmonger although he had $1 billion spending campaign money

    Spot the Romney Counting His Money
    catching fish isn't what fishing is about, anyway. It's about basking and bonding in the quiet wilderness with just a few good buddies and your Scottish bodyguard

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Syria has become latest form of cold war between major powers. Shame on them all trading on the expenses of children blood. how much more blood Obama, Putin, Cameron, and other vampires, want to drink before they put humans before their personal interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Commentators advocating military action must recognise that those of us cautioning against such action are not callous. Rather we understand that Western military intervention will only serve to create more orphans in Syria and in the West. All NGO's and charities clearly state military intervention will only escalate the conflict and risk further conflagration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    When will America realise that they have LOST every war that they have started since 1945. If Britain should get involved due to our "special relationship" please end the relationship.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I hope Obama continues his thoughtful incremental style. We have a history of helping out folks, giving them training and weapons , only to have these same trained "warriors" turn our own weapons upon us. Let us stop this nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Whatever the West, all or any, do or dont do will be wrong. Better then to do nothing and hope the baddies (Syrians) learn from their own mistakes. You can't help some people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Another reason why Obama voters have a lot to answer for. Both Romney and McCain had the conviction to make tough decisions.

    When is Obama going to help the Pakastani Doctor who aided in the justfied execution of Bin Ladin?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    If only this matter involved only Syria, but no, this matter involves layer upon layer of international complications, both on the Syrian government side and on the rebel opposition side.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    In 2002 Assad was the good guy in ME with modern British Born Wife
    [but that was views of our infamous soon to be disgraced PM]




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