What does Obama regard as an acceptable body count in Syria?

If Bashar al-Assad ever thought that Barack Obama believed in such a thing as a “red line” — a line that must not be crossed — he probably also had a hunch that as the President of Syria he had more power to define such a line than would an American president who invariably prizes pragmatism above principle.

The following article appeared in Foreign Policy just two days before today’s reports of hundreds of deaths in Damascus from chemical weapons attacks. An American intelligence official is quoted, saying: “As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything.”

Has Assad once again demonstrated that the only definite attribute Obama’s red line possesses is that it is permanently open to redefinition?

Noah Shachtman and Colum Lynch write: All of the major players in Syria — and all of their major backers — now agree that chemical weapons have been used during the civil war there. But the mysteries surrounding a string of alleged nerve gas assaults over the spring have, in some ways, only grown thicker. The motivations and tactics behind the unconventional strikes continue to puzzle U.S. intelligence analysts. And the arrival in Damascus of United Nations weapons inspectors holds little promise of solving the riddles.

Independent tests of environmental samples by both Russian and American spy services indicate that the deadly nerve agent sarin was used during a March 19 battle in Khan al-Assal, for example. Beyond that basic fact, there’s little agreement. The Russians blame the Syrian rebels for launching that unconventional strike on the Aleppo suburb, while the Americans say it was a case of chemical friendly fire.

U.S. intelligence officials tell Foreign Policy that they’re continuing to investigate claims of new chemical weapon attacks in Syria, including an alleged strike earlier this month in the town of Adra that left men foaming at the mouth and dogs twitching in the street. They’re continuing to see supplies shuffled around some of Syria’s biggest chemical weapons arsenals, such as the notorious Khan Abu Shamat depot.

But the number of reports of unconventional attacks has dropped sharply since early June, these same officials say. That’s right around the time when forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad took over the strategic town of Qusair and gained the upper hand in Syria’s horrific civil war. The decline provides to American spy services another indication that it was Assad’s forces who launched the chemical attacks; there’s little need to gas people when you’re winning.

There was a time when such determinations appeared to hold geopolitical significance. The Obama administration repeatedly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line.” But that line has now been crossed repeatedly, with little consequence. And that’s led U.S. intelligence officials to confront another question: How massive would the chemical strike have to be in order to prompt America and its allies to intervene in Syria in a major way?

“As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything,” an American intelligence official admits. [Continue reading…]

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