Last month, amid allegations of chemical weapons use in war-torn Syria, President Obama delivered a firm ultimatum on what such an act, if confirmed, might mean for the U.S.: Chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" for the Obama administration, he said, and the crossing of that "red line" would demand action from the international community.
Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed that after investigating the matter, "the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria." The chemical sarin, according to the administration, appears to have been used in two separate Syrian attacks, in Damascus and Aleppo, last month.
Immediately, a handful of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanded action from the administration, insisting the so-called "red line" has been crossed and that action must follow. But in a scenario rife with suboptimal choices, the White House has signaled caution in its path forward, demanding "airtight" evidence of an attack and its perpetrators before becoming increasingly entwined in a high-risk and potentially costly intervention.
"The risk is getting caught in Syria for a decade," said Steven Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with CBSNews.com. "There's concern about getting caught up in someone else's civil war."
Was the red line crossed?
For military hawks, Mr. Obama's "red line" comment presents an opportunity to demand more from the administration: Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both of whom have been calling for an increased U.S. response for months, immediately urged the administration for a definitive and escalated response.
"The president of the United States said that this would be a 'red line' if they used chemical weapons. The president of the United States has now told us that they used chemical weapons," McCain said yesterday. "We must give the opposition the capability to drive out [Syrian President] Bashar Assad once and for all."
For a president who takes great pains to avoid black-and-white policy assessments, Mr. Obama's tough talk on Syria and the "red line" rhetoric puts the administration in a difficult situation, according to Cook.
"I think the administration's sort of gotten played on this one, and caught by its own rhetoric," he said. "I think it would be hard to imagine that they would climb down from the place where they are saying, 'It's a game-changer, it's a red line.' I think this should augur more active U.S. involvement in Syria."
So far, the Obama administration doesn't seem particularly compelled by the argument that the president's firm positioning on chemical weapon use mandates some sort of escalation. Plus, White House officials are rebutting the notion that the red line has necessarily been crossed.
On a conference call with reporters yesterday, a White House official said that "all options are on the table" in terms of a possible response - but that the intelligence assessments cited by Hagel and Kerry "are not alone sufficient" when it comes to determining whether or not a "red line" has been crossed.
"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 air tight in an public and credible fashion to underpin all of our decision making," the official said, alluding to the Bush administration's mistaken assessment about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which drew the nation into the Iraq War. "That is, I think, the threshold that is demanded, given how serious this issue is."
Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the president is wise to dismiss internal political jockeying.
"Let's be honest, this is a highly political issue. The people who want intervention in Syria are going to rush out to say, we must intervene because this is a 'red line.' But simply saying we've crossed the 'red line' and then not presenting a realistic course of action is a little like crying wolf - it doesn't mean anything," he told CBSNews.com. "Declaring that this is a critical 'red line' without being able to define the actions to be taken [once we cross it], putting pressure on the administration without really considering whether you have enough of a justification to get support and world opinion -- that's politics but it's terrible strategy."
The existing options
According to the White House official, the administration is prepared to use a "full range of options" if and when it determines the "red line" has been crossed.
"Nobody should have any mistake about what our 'red line' is," the official said. "It is when we firmly establish that there has been chemical weapons used within Syria that is not acceptable to the United States, nor is the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist organizations and people in Syria. And the Assad Regime should know that the president means what he says when he sets that 'red line.'"
The White House has not spelled out exactly what those options might look like, however, except to say they could run "a broad spectrum of activity" across existing lines of effort as well as "additional options and contingencies."
According to James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, those options take roughly three forms: The U.S. could launch an immediate retaliatory military mission in Syria; it could insist U.N. inspection teams get full access to several targeted sites for purposes of ascertaining conclusive evidence regarding the possibility of a chemical weapons attack; or it could continue current threats while essentially maintaining the status quo.
Jeffrey, who served as Deputy National Security Adviser under George W. Bush, argues that failing to send a clear warning to the Syrian regime through some form of decisive action would be "very dangerous" in terms of upholding international credibility. "Once he thinks that he can play it like this, [Assad] won't take our threats seriously" and neither will Iran, Jeffrey said. But neither does the president want to go to war with Syria over the alleged chemical weapons attack when many details remain unclear, and it may well be that "12 people were made sick and nobody was killed" during the supposed sarin attack. It's also yet to be proven definitively that Assad ordered any chemical weapons attacks that may have occurred.
"I would not strike immediately. I would basically give this guy an ultimatum," he said.
According to Cordesman, any kind of ultimatum, if that is the course the Obama administration chooses going forward, should be specific.
"A clear declaration that if there is any significant further use - in other, words defining the red line and making it clear that the consequences would involve U.S. military action - would be one way of doing it," he said. "It presents the risk that you can't afford to have your bluff called, if it's a bluff."
In addition to "tangible action like arms transfers to the rebels," the president could also float the idea of a no-fly zone or a no-war zone, he said, though he argued that such a course is tough because "you cant simply declare a safe zone without enforcing it."
"You can also go to the U.N. and force the issue, and effectively make China and Russia either vote against the reality of the use of chemical weapons or accept a resolution which would at least undercut Assad," he offered. "You can go to our allies and to key countries like Britain, France, Turkey and Jordan, and talk about taking specific military action, and do so publicly on a contingency basis."
In other words, Cordesman argues, "there are a fairly wide range of options other than simply going in and creating a major immediate response."
If the administration does find cause for military action, it could loosely follow the model of its 2011 Libyan intervention, "where we offered a certain degree of support, we didn't put troops on the ground, we delayed until we absolutely had to, and then we wrapped up our response in a multilateral way," Jeffrey said.
Addressing any existing chemical weapons would likely be at the fore of any mission, Cook argues.
"If Syria is using chemical weapons, it strikes me that now you have to try to get at those - either control them or destroy them," he said. "I have a sense that when there is no consequence for an action [like this] it signals, oh, they can continue, that we're willing to turn a blind eye to it. If the administration doesn't do much in response - even if they come out and say, 'well, it was minimal use of sarin gas,' that's a signal to Assad that he can escalate along that axis."
So far, the Obama administration has signaled a moderate, and measured, response. And while most experts agree that the use of chemical weapons would represent a serious new threat, they concur that the options available to the president and his team are "suboptimal," as Cook put it.
"The use of chemical weapons represents a very real concern," said Cordesman. "But the fact is there aren't any good options, which means you can't say anybody is clearly right."