Reports have been circling in Western media since late yesterday that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the war between government forces and opposition rebels. US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, said that he has not seen the report proving the use of chemical weapons, but if Syria is using chemical weapons that would represent the crossing of a “red line.”
“Red Line” rhetoric has become a popular trope among important politicians dealing with less than friendly nations, the most famous example of which was Benjamin Netanyahu’s atomic bomb diagram that dealt with Iranian atomic technology. The problem with the metaphor is that it rarely comes with more than “or else” as a consequence. Hagel was similarly vague about the response of the United States.
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The United States went to war in 2003 on claims that Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s leader, was stockpiling and not using chemical weapons. Hussein had used the so called “weapons of mass destruction” in the 1980’s during its war with Iran, but no evidence of them was found during the ten year American campaign in the country.
One of the top military analysts in Israel publicly disclosed that the country’s intelligence had found evidence that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons against its people during the current civil war. Hagel, when questioned by the press about the development, said that he had not seen the information and was suitably restrained in his responses.
“This is serious business and you want to be as sure as you can be,” was Hagel’s response to questions about when the United States would determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used in Syria. It is unclear what kind of response the United States would initiate if the evidence was clear.
There are three major options. The country could continue its current policy of inaction, and possibly add support to Syria in terms of resources, but without overt military alliance. The second, and least likely option, is the initiation of a full scale war. It seems unlikely that Barack Obama wants to add a war in the middle east to his legacy of ending two wars in the region.
The third course is one that many have been calling on the United States to pursue since the conflict started, the initiation of a full military support campaign that the government supported during the Libyan civil war.
According to Hagel, a “red line” has been crossed. There must be some action now.