Editorial: Obama administration must clarify red line

U.S. President Barack Obama must clarify comments made in December about Syria crossing a red line by using chemical weapons, according to a recent editorial in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Charles Blair, a senior fellow for state and non-state threats at the Federation for American Scientists, and Mila Johns, a project manager at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, discussed the most recent accusations of chemical weapon use during the Syrian civil war in an editorial last week. Blair and Johns said that a lack of action or clarification by the Obama administration may have unintentionally eroded an international taboo against chemical weapon use.

In March, both Syria and the Syrian opposition claimed the use of chemical weapons by their opponent during an attack on the village of Khan al-Assal. In December, the Syrian opposition claimed Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons against the rebels during attacks in Homs. Despite journalistic assertions that nerve agents were used in the December incidents, an investigation by the U.S. State Department determined no banned chemical agents were used.

Evidence may point to Syria having used chemical agents designed to be non-lethal, such as riot-control agents. Syria may have also used white phosphorus, an incapacitant that is not addressed or banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

In December, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons during the conflict would cross a red line. He implied the U.S. would intervene militarily if the weapons were used. As claims of chemical weapon use go unresolved, journalists continue to raise the question of whether or not the Obama administration's red line has been crossed and which weapons count as chemical weapons that would cross the line.

"The undermining of this moral prohibition relates directly to the discourse surrounding 'non-lethal' chemical agents such as riot-control agents, incapacitants, and white phosphorus," Blair and Johns said. "While the technical and legal classifications of these agents are, one assumes, crucial to international leaders, the distinctions are lost on the layperson. With the United States' casus belli inextricably predicated on Syria's use of chemical weapons, and the future of the chemical warfare taboo in the balance, it is incumbent on the Obama administration to clearly articulate what definitions are being used in determining whether its red line has been breached, and to make a compelling case for why the use of certain chemical agents is not grounds for another U.S. military foray into the Middle East."

The March incident in Khan al-Assad is said to have killed at least 31 people and injured more than 100. More than 70,000 people are dead since the conflict in Syria began with more than one million Syrians displaced by the war.