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:

Start Quote

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 Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 648.

    460. Chris W
    How odd, posters regularly attack the US and UK for "false flag" actions, while ignoring those of Russia and China. Not only that, they pretend that Assad could not possibly be doing the same! How very odd!

    461. Which God, YHWH, Krishna, Zeus, Amaterasu or other?

    494. 17118
    You find dim bulbs in every country, with a 300K population the US has more, unfortunately!

  • rate this

    Comment number 647.

    408. Will
    It also created low-information voting, right-wing, anything goes [as long as the Pres. is Republican] Americans.

    414. Chris London
    If only the UN were less of a "Game of Thrones" and more of a serious institution devoid of selfish interest and dedicated to peace!

    423. plotinus
    But which Spain, post-Visigoth or post- Cid?

    429. True but right & necessary

  • rate this

    Comment number 646.

    331. Jim Squeechy

    "America is spying on the World illegally"
    And so are the Chinese, French, Israelis, Russians and a few others. So your point is what, exactly, that the US should not do what others do? Although I disagree with your polemic, I do agree that the spying is wrong, FOR ALL! And, BTW, "international law" is a fiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 645.

    "US needs"
    Watch the meshing of gears, a myriad wheels turning, taught to imagine ourselves democratic equals shaping our collective 'needs', driving 'our state' towards their satisfaction. In fact our wheels are sized-by & serving the 'needs' of blind Mammon, not even of the more charismatic of Quislings, in the end all too simply of fear & greed

  • rate this

    Comment number 644.

    289. C_Cat
    Consistency is vastly overrated! Look at George W. Bush's consistency in pursuing poorly thought out and badly implemented pipe-dreams. Consistency is good in pursuing good, achievable goals, otherwise it is a trap. Look at the consistency of the European powers in the 19th and 20th Centuries for edification.

    #291, a Freudian message.

  • rate this

    Comment number 643.

    The US needs the world to trade in dollars but nations are switching to alternative means thereby creating mounting levels of concern to the Fed & its faceless backers

    Covert operations have created mayhem in the Middle East.

    Fanatical religious beliefs lead to massacres with no guilt

    Previously trusted media cannot be trusted today

    Children are being killed - not Assad's fault

    What a mess!

  • rate this

    Comment number 642.

    margaret howard @641
    "wise words"
    Scotland NOT to rescue
    Nor EU nor USA

    Understandable without a pact, & if only conceivable assistance is more violence, 'against and by' more of the same mix, the innocent & fear-fevered, led by the business-like but ignorant, pawns delivering 'need' to the military-industrial complex and its investors in 'death above peace'

    Wise words, without wisdom, may undo

  • rate this

    Comment number 641.

    640 Lucy

    "so sometimes even the winning side still holds resentment+wants revenge as well"

    Wise words indeed
    Even police are reluctant to intervene in family quarrels as more often than not the whole family suddenly stick together and turn against them.

    The west should concentrate on getting the world economies going again.

    Spread the wealth down to the poor of the world

  • rate this

    Comment number 640.

    Marg: Keep out of other peoples' affairs

    Thank you for your honest answer
    I do believe you are correct

    Marg: The next generation of whoever is on the losing side with want revenge - Tit for Tat - an eye for an eye

    USA helped Afghanistan beat Russia
    but then Afghanistan hated us afterward anyway
    so sometimes even the winning side still holds resentment+wants revenge as well

  • rate this

    Comment number 639.

    625 Kosovo

    "Perhaps we should of done the same, during the Balkan War, WW II in Europe and WW"

    Go further back and you'll find that without France you wouldn't have won the War of Indepence or without European troups your Civil War would have panned out differently

    "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there"

    We should learn not to interfere

  • rate this

    Comment number 638.

    623 Lucy

    "If Scotland or EU was in USA's position
    what do you think would be appropriate for Scotland or EU to do"

    Keep out of other peoples' affairs. You shouldn't even intervene between a husband and wife let alone a whole region. It leads to resentment and retaliation. The next generation of whoever is on the losing side with want revenge - Tit for Tat - an eye for an eye

  • rate this

    Comment number 637.

    Oaktree: What kind of #1 did you imagine when writing that ?

    I love Europe's ambitions but I question EU's b/c it is not necessarily Europe

    EU is an organization that wants full control and domination over Europe
    first and foremost,
    then the world

    In many ways, they are a lot like USSR of past

    Who is truly behind EU?

    The Bilderbergers aka European and American elitists?

  • rate this

    Comment number 636.

    #630 LucyJ

    "You said EU wants to be #1 in world" ???

    -- What kind of #1 did you imagine when writing that ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 635.

    wow just wow

    We're YOU? Only democracy in the region where ALL are equal under the Law. Jew Muslim Christina Hindu Bahai etc"




    hizballah ATTACKS Israeli civilians and the government who are required to protect their people defend them doh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 634.

    Pffft: They hate each other in Syria,that's what needs untangling,not more munitions

    I think you have offered the clearest explanation yet

    Many people want USA to step in and untangle this war
    but not only is it not ours to untangle
    it may make things much worse for them and us to get involved

    It is up to Syria to work things out themselves
    where the strongest side wins

  • rate this

    Comment number 633.

    Let's make this simple, Obama isn't going to do anything, nothing nada zip zero zilch cept blow some hot air and misdirection. If the world is waiting for the U.S. to do another thing, you gotta wait for a new president, this is the most spineless one to date.

  • rate this

    Comment number 632.

    @626 EgyptionQueen - really? What are the parallels? As far as I can tell, he's done nothing. Obama and his administration do a ton of dumb things, but standing on the sideline for as long as possible is the best thing for Americans (which it's his responsibility to look out for) regarding Syria. There's nothing Obama, or anyone else can do, to get people in the ME to stop killing each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 631.

    #625 Kosovo

    " Europe, stand up and take charge, Syria is in your back yard. "

    -- small world ?

    --same with Timbuktu ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    Oaktree: attempt to drag

    No one should have to drag anybody to go to war
    just like how no one should be dragged in or out of EU

    You said EU wants to be #1 in world
    Being #1 means dealing with anything and everything

    As Kennedy said With great power comes great responsibility

    So that is why I asked you what Germany would do
    b/c I respect and value Europeans' opinions

  • rate this

    Comment number 629.

    617. LucyJ
    "UK and France won't go in without the USA
    b/c we have what is needed to do the job most efficiently and the best"

    US has the military hard wear that would be the envy of Russia/ China,but in Syria all it would deliver is crashing but meaning less blows.War does not prove who`s right,just who`s left.They hate each other in Syria,that's what needs untangling,not more munitions.


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