There is nothing like hearing things from the horse’s mouth. It is always dicey to depend on second hand version. So seems the case with President Barack Obama’s press conference Monday when he spoke on Syria. (By the way, Obama took the unscheduled press meet primarily to train guns on Mitt Romney.)
But what did Obama say? Let me paraphrase: Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should voluntarily step down but this is unlikely to happen. What does the US do? One, US should step up humanitarian assistance for refugees. Two, US should consult allies and provide assistance to the political opposition as regards the orientations of a future post-Bashar Syria.
Obama then said explicitly he has “not ordered military engagement in the situation” although there are deep concerns about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. These concerns are shared by the US’ “close allies in the region” (read Turkey, Jordan), “including Israel.”
Syria’s stockpiles of WMD should not fall into “the hands of the wrong people.” It is a “red line” if a situation develops where US sees “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my [Obama's] calculus. That would change my equation.”
Washington is monitoring the situation. “We [US] have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region (eg., Turkey, Israel, Jordan) that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.”
Obama issued this warning once before when Israel spoke about intervention and Damascus warned that it might use chemical weapons if Syria faced external aggression. Therefore, the new issue here is whether Obama is going to do what his predecessor George W, Bush did with regard to Iraq, namely, use WMD as a pretext to invade Syria.
Clearly, that can be ruled out. A US entanglement in Syria in the run-up to the November elections? No way. What Obama has in mind is that as civil war conditions worsen and if the government loses control of the chemical weapons, or worse still, if the regime tries to decimate the rebels by using chemical weapons, US may be compelled to intervene despite its wish not to intervene.
Now, interestingly, by affirming the US’ resolve to intervene in an emergency, isn’t Obama also holding Israel back from making any precipitate moves? Second, “calculus”, “equation”, “calculations” — expressions Obama used — could mean a range of options and not necessarily a Libya-like military intervention.