5 Jun 2013

Syria chemical weapons: has Obama’s ‘red line’ been crossed?

Britain and France say they are certain the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against rebels, but how long until Barack Obama feels his “red line” has been crossed?

In August last year US President Barack Obama warned both the Assad regime and other groups “on the ground in Syria” that the use of chemical weapons was a “game changer”.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or utilised,” he said.

“…there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movements on the chemical weapons or use, that would change my calculations signifcantly.”

It is relatively small quantities but nonetheless repeated use, and any use of chemical weapons is abhorrent. Sir Mark Lyall Grant, British ambassador to the UN

However, Britain and France have now said with greater confidence that they believe the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, as has the latest UN report on the country.


Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesperson has said there is “a growing body of persuasive evidence” that the weapons had been used against rebels.

However, the spokesperson said it was important for the independent United Nations investigation to establish the “full facts” about allegations of chemical weapons use before deciding what the international response should be.

A line has been crossed, unquestionably. Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister

Britain’s ambassador to the UN Sir Mark Lyall Grant said evidence suggests the Assad regime has used various chemical agents, including the deadly nerve gas sarin. “It is relatively small quantities but nonetheless repeated use, and any use of chemical weapons is abhorrent,” he said.

France has gone further, raising the prospect of military intervention in Syria. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said: “A line has been crossed, unquestionably. There is the United Nations approach. Apart from that we are discussing with our partners – the United States, the English etc. – what eventual reaction will have to be given. All the options are on the table.

“Either we decide not to react, or we decide to react including by armed actions targeting the place where the gas is produced and detained, where it is stored.”

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Mr Fabius said tests done on samples from Syria had detected sarin gas, and said there is “no doubt” that it had been used by the regime.

The United Nations also said, in its latest report on the crisis released on Tuesday, that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons.”

UN experts said allegations have been received concerning both rebels and the government, but that the majority were of use by Assad’s military.

‘Further evidence’

However, the US has been more reticent. US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that the US is “still seeking further information” and that the government would not “evaluate other countries’ information”.

Asked if the situation was any closer to Obama’s “red line”, Ms Psaki said: “I just don’t want to grade where we are or where we are on any track or anything along those lines. It just goes farther than I’m comfortable going here.

Syria Files - a Channel 4 News investigation into the rebel groups battling for control of Syria

“I will tell you that this is something the president, the secretary, everybody who has a relevant role here, is focused on within the administration.”

Dr Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, said it is understandable that the US government is being hesitant over saying that the ‘red line’ has been crossed, considering the role of evidence in the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003.

“Last time intelligence said that Saddam had biological and chemical weapons which he could deploy in 45 minutes, not to mention a mobile biological weapons capability – remember that debacle? A defector totally made the mobile bioweapons labs up.

“There can be major consequences from acting on incomplete evidence.”

She said the French government has not provided much detail about the samples that it analysed to support its conclusion that the nerve agent sarin has been used, leaving room for questions about the authenticity of the samples.

The presence of sarin might indicate chemical weapons use by Assad, she said. However, if other toxic chemicals are involved in some of the incidents, one cannot rule out yet that rebel forces might be releasing chemicals to try to implicate the Assad government, or that conventional explosions have accidentally released toxic chemicals from industrial facilities.

“What concerned governments should do is provide chemical defences to Syria’s civilians and the rebel forces,” she said. “Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United Kingdom, the United States, and 186 other countries are obliged to provide assistance to countries that are under chemical weaspons attack or are threatened with chemical weapons attacks. Syria hasn’t joined this treaty, but saving lives should be a priority.”

“The civilians do not have gas masks and the doctors need nerve agent antidotes. Defences can help to take the chemical trump card out of Assad’s hands, which is why they are the no-brainer answer to Obama’s red line dilemma.”

There have been 26 unverified claims (see video above) by the rebels of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Damascus and the Syrian countryside (see graphic, top). The Assad regime has also claimed rebels have used chemical weapons, including in Khan al Assal, to the south west of Aleppo.

But the problem Ms Psaki says, is the certainty about who has used chemical weapons, and under what circumstances.


The fractured nature of Syria’s rebel groups – split across extreme Islamist groups, more moderate jihadis and secular fighters – has also been causing problems as the UN searches for a way to resolve the crisis without military intervention.

The UN is trying to convene a peace conference between various parties, but said on Wednesday that efforts to convene such a meeting in June had failed

Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (video, above) said it was “embarassing” that a conference had not yet been organised. He said he hopes that a conference could take place in July, but that the Syrian opposition has “a lot of work” to do.

Russia has blamed the Syria opposition for the failure of the plannned peace summit. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said: “The whole issue is that the Syrian opposition, unlike the government, has not made a fundamental decision about its participation in this conference.”

Syrian rebels have demanded that Assad be forced out in order for peace talks to take place. The Syrian National Coalition ahs also said it will not participate in international peace talks whilst Iranian and Hezbollah fighters are intervening against rebels in Syria.