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Caution on Syria

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President Obama is exercising understandable caution in his response to the latest reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against rebels seeking to depose him in a two-year-old civil war.

The White House Thursday said that intelligence agencies had determined with “varying degrees of confidence” that the regime had used sarin, a lethal nerve agent, “on a small scale.”

In a clear reference to Iraq, Miguel Rodriguez, the president’s liaison to Congress, wrote, “Given the stakes involved and what we have learned from our own recent experience ... only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.”

The claim came just days after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said there was no credible evidence of chemical weapon use, which only adds to the confusion and inconclusive nature of the claim.

Even as some members of Congress were clamoring for a policy change, questions have been raised about the reliability of the evidence. International experts who viewed a video of an alleged victim questioned several details, such as the single hospitalized individual said to have survived an attack with sarin that kills quickly.

Others were skeptical about the finding of a toxic byproduct from a nerve agent that can also be found in fertilizer. The chain of custody of the evidence cast further doubt on its reliability. Several possible explanations could account for the small amount of sarin contamination.

Administration policy has been to avoid direct military intervention either by establishing a no-fly zone or sending in troops. The administration recently doubled its humanitarian and nonlethal aid to rebels.

U.S. military leaders have outlined several options. They range from setting up a no-fly zone that would prevent use of the regime’s air forces against rebels and civilian populations to sending in thousands of troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

As President Obama assesses his options, there is much is at stake. He would have to overcome public reluctance to intervene in another war.

However, a failure to respond decisively to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons risks undermining U.S. credibility and could embolden the Syrian leader to escalate their use on an even larger scale.

President Obama has warned President Assad that using chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” that would trigger American military intervention, but the “low or moderate” confidence reported in a White House letter to Capitol Hill falls well short of the assurance needed to avoid another war based on faulty intelligence.

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