The World from Berlin: Obama's Warning 'Will Not Deter Assad'

US President Barack Obama warned this week that the US would intervene if Syrian President Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people. Obama's "red line" raises the stakes in the Syrian conflict, but some observers say that the warning is merely symbolic.

Israel has recently begun distributing gas masks to its citizens among concerns about Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Here, a woman tries on a mask in Tel Aviv. Zoom
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Israel has recently begun distributing gas masks to its citizens among concerns about Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Here, a woman tries on a mask in Tel Aviv.

For months, the West has appeared highly reluctant to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict, apart from some indirect support for rebels in the country. On Monday, however, US President Barack Obama drew a line in the sand.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Syria regime, or even their large-scale movement, would mark a "red line" for the US that would have "enormous consequences." The use of such weapons "would change my calculus," he said.

Syria has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons, which is believed to include mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin. Obama emphasized that the US would not accept "a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people" -- an apparent reference to the militant Islamist group Hezbollah or foreign jihadists who are thought to be fighting in Syria.

Obama's statement is regarded as being partly intended to reassure US ally Israel, which is concerned about Hezbollah getting its hands on weapons of mass destruction. It also highlights the growing international dimensions of the Syrian conflict. So far, the US has opposed military intervention in Syria, partly out of concerns that it could broaden the conflict by drawing in Syrian allies such as Iran and Russia and make a political solution harder to obtain. Russia has warned against unilateral intervention by the West, but is also blocking action against Assad in the United Nations Security Council.

It remains unclear just how likely it is that Assad could decide to use chemical weapons. In July, the Syrian government acknowledged for the first time that it held stockpiles of chemical weapons but promised it would never use chemical weapons against the Syrian people "under any circumstances." On Wednesday, Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying that Moscow believes Syria has no intention of using its chemical weapons.

Obama's statement also triggered a response in Germany on Tuesday, where Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned Damascus that it would be a "disastrous crossing of the line" if the regime were to deploy chemical weapons -- for both Syria and the region. "We must do everything to ensure that this scenario doesn't happen and that chemical weapons don't fall into the wrong hands," he said.

On Wednesday, German commentators react to Obama's statement.

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Obama's determined warning to Damascus was not least a signal to Israel. The Israelis already wanted to take out Syria's weapons of mass destruction months ago with military means. Obama stopped them from doing so, partly out of concern that this could lead to international solidarity with Damascus that extended beyond Syria's current allies Russia, China and Iran. So the warning to Assad was also a message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States would not neglect the security of its closest ally in the region."

"But Syria would be making a mistake if it interprets Obama's rhetoric as just a reassuring gesture to others. If Assad now takes the wrong step, the US would no longer limit itself to just providing logistical and humanitarian assistance to the rebels. Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his determination to defend national and international security by using military force. Syria could provide further proof of that determination."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Obama's suggestion that the US could, in a worst case scenario, intervene militarily, together with Russia's warning against unilateral action by the West, makes it clear that this civil war is no longer just a domestic Syrian affair. It is a conflict of regional and international significance, involving the participation of many actors who pursue their interests and who are partially responsible for developments in Syria."

"The wave of violence, retribution and general destabilization will not die down for a long time, regardless of when Assad falls. There are good reasons why the US should be reluctant to openly intervene militarily. With his new threat of an intervention, Obama, who is perhaps taking the price of non-intervention into account in his calculations, has revealed how dangerous he considers the situation."

The mass circulation daily Bild writes:

"A clear statement sometimes works wonders. US President Barack Obama has made it abundantly clear that if Syria uses chemical or biological weapons against its own people, the response will be a military strike. Nobody wants war with Syria. After the bitter experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody wants to open up a new front."

"Nevertheless, it's good that someone is finally drawing a line in the sand for the dictator in Damascus. The bloodshed in the supposed 'People's Republic' has already lasted far too long."

In a guest editorial for the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung, Elias Perabo, co-founder of the Adopt a Revolutionproject, which supports the Syrian uprising, writes:

"The international pseudo-debate has entered into a new round. Obama is threatening a military strike in the event that Syria uses chemical weapons. His statement has less to do with Syria than with the American election campaign. He is under pressure from the Republicans and has to create the impression that he is supporting the people of Syria. But he has long refused to provide this support, just like other Western countries."

"But the poison gas debate will not deter the Assad regime -- quite the contrary. Assad can now be confident that the US will continue to do nothing, provided he refrains from using chemical weapons. Until now, there is no evidence that Assad even intends to use chemical weapons."

-- David Gordon Smith

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