by Boaz Bismuth
U.S. President Barack Obama admitted over the weekend that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, calling this a "game changer." He added, however, that "we have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately."
Obama is in no hurry to go to war.
Obama has plenty of reasons to be cautious. First, by helping the rebels, the U.S. could in fact end up helping al-Qaida jihadists who want to establish a Sunni emirate in Syria and Iraq. Second, memories of the war in Iraq are still planted firmly in American minds. If the U.S. is going to go to war again over weapons of mass destruction, there had better be clear evidence this time. And third, Obama is a president who ends wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), not one who starts them.
Obama and his advisers are completely entitled to raise the Iraq precedent to justify delaying a decision on Syria. The American public will accept this, even though there is increasing domestic pressure on Obama to act in Syria.
But the scenario today is different from what it was in 2003. At that time, the administration of then-President George W. Bush was looking for any possible excuse to go to war in Iraq, even without a smoking gun. Today, the situation is the exact opposite. While the U.S. government did confirm reports that came in from Britain, France and Israel about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons (on Dec. 23 in Homs and in mid-March in the Damascus suburbs), it is choosing to play down the story at the moment, for obvious reasons.
Obama said last August that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a red line for him. Obama could now point to Assad's chemical weapons use as justification for the launch of a military campaign, or he could instead view the chemical weapons use as a localized military tactic adopted by Assad's forces in their fight against the rebels, and not intervene.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime and Iran are testing Washington and the international community. Assad has understood for some time that the West is not enthusiastic about war. British Prime Minister David Cameron stated this explicitly in a BBC interview on Friday. Assad also has the support of the Russian government, which doesn't believe in shedding tears, even after chemical weapons use. The Assad regime continues to escalate the means it uses to suppress the rebellion that broke out in mid-March 2011. Torture and rifles have progressed to Scud missiles and now chemical weapons.
On March 25, the Fox News network reported that American special forces soldiers were training Syrian rebels in northern Jordan. That same report said France was set to give U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry information on chemical weapons use in Syria. One can assume that Obama discussed the military option with Jordan's King Abdullah during their meeting in Washington on Friday. All indicators show that Obama is readying for war, even if he doesn't want one.
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