The Washington Post reports: The suspicious attack that killed 26 people in northern Syria last week exposed the difficulty of determining whether the Syrian regime has resorted to using chemical weapons as well as the lingering uncertainty over how President Obama would respond if what he has called a “red line” is crossed.
Current and former U.S. officials acknowledged that confirming a small-scale chemical weapons attack poses technical challenges that have been compounded by limitations on the ability of U.S. spy agencies to gather reliable intelligence, let alone air or soil samples, inside Syria.
The two factors are why U.S. intelligence analysts are still working to determine whether the attack near Aleppo last Tuesday involved the use of chemical compounds. The Syrian government and rebels have accused each other of unleashing chemical weapons.
The course Obama intends to take if confronted with proof of a chemical attack is equally unclear. The Pentagon has prepared calibrated options, ranging from airstrikes to sending troops to seize weapons sites. But officials said they haven’t taken the advance steps necessary to carry out such orders because planning has been hobbled by concerns about the political backlash to a potential U.S. intervention as well as struggles to coordinate with regional allies.
“If we had to go in tomorrow, I’d say we aren’t ready,” said an Obama administration official involved in preparations for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. “One thing we want to avoid is having one group securing the sites and another group bombing them.”
The level of uncertainty surrounding U.S. contingency planning two years into a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people contrasts with the clarity of Obama’s repeated admonitions to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]