I live in Chicago, and our mass transit system, the CTA, is organized into “lines” of different colors: orange, green, purple, etc. Maybe I’m biased because I live a couple of blocks from one of its stops, but in my opinion all the other colored lines are bullshit compared to the Red Line. Catching the Cubs at Wrigley? You’re taking the Red Line. Going to a Sox game? Red Line. Da Bears at Soldier Field? You can screw around with the Green or Orange lines if you want, but the Red Line will get you there faster. As a rule, Red Lines are impressive things. I mean, a line by itself is just sort of there, but make it a Red Line and suddenly you’ve got something right? If the line were green, say, somebody might mistake it for some grass and walk right over it. Brown line? Forget it; even assuming somebody actually notices it, they’re just going to think, “Who left that big smudge across the floor?” and then keep right on going. But a Red Line? Nobody’s missing that shit. You step across a Red Line, you must really be ready for some trouble.
The point is, Red Lines, all of them, are Serious Business. Even the President of the United States has Red Lines, and one of them recently got crossed. The Syrian government, I guess tired of massacring its citizens with bombs and bullets, decided to gas a few of them, and that crossed our Red Line about Weapons
That Scare Us of Mass Destruction. President Obama, regretting ever talking about Red Lines because Red Lines have a way of Locking You In when you don’t want to be locked in, announced that Syria had probably used poison gas against its rebels but that We Needed to Be Sure before we started to Do Something, so the UN would have to investigate this incident before American was prepared to act.
Of course this angered many people in Washington, such as President of Bombing People John McCain or Vice President for Crocheting Little Doilies to Put on the Bombs Before We Use Them to Bomb People Lindsey Graham, who would much rather Do Something before We Can Be Sure because they know that, if it turns out we were wrong, they themselves will never suffer any personal or professional consequences from being wrong for the millionth time in their lives. They accused the president of erasing his Red Line, or (witty!) drawing his Red Line in invisible ink! Basically what they mean is that the president is a loser wimp and probably a traitor, because it’s written somewhere in the Constitution, maybe, that once the United States puts down a Red Line, and that Red Line gets crossed, it is ON, motherfuckers. You can be impeached for not backing up your own Red Line, we hope! Because it is a Red Line, and you just don’t mess with Red Lines!
Yesterday, as it happens, we learned from Carla Del Ponte, a member of the commission appointed by the UN to investigate possible war crimes in the Syrian Civil War, that the UN has “strong, concrete suspicions, but not yet incontrovertible proof” that chemical weapons have been used in the war…by the rebels. You know, the side we’re ostensibly supporting, that we’re probably going to start arming despite the fact that groups of them are openly allied with al-Qaeda.
U.N. human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria’s civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said on Sunday.
The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.
“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.
“This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.
This comes just days after The Guardian reported (via) that the evidence for any use of poison gas whatsoever was extremely thin at best. The Free Syrian Army leadership is angrily denouncing the UN claims, though the leadership of the FSA can’t even keep its own rebels from signing up with al-Qaeda so it’s not clear that they could stop them from using chemical weapons either. The US is “skeptical,” arguing that it’s seen no evidence that the rebels even have such weapons and still believes the government did use them, and it’s not like the US government has ever fixed intel related to the Middle East in order to justify military action, so there’s certainly no credibility issue there.
To be fair, it’s difficult to understand what possible motivation the Syrian rebels would have for using chemical weapons while there’s still the hope of a larger western intervention. The UN team’s investigation is hampered, if not completely knee-capped, by the fact that they’re not allowed into Syria, and the evidence they amass is often second-hand at best, but the one thing that emerges clearly from all of this is that (surprise!) we here in the West have no idea what the hell is being done in Syria or who the hell is doing it.
So was the Red Line crossed? Who crossed it? We don’t know and we probably don’t care. It was a Red Line, and you can’t mess around with Red Lines. Expect that Something will be Done very soon.
And I’m not saying that Something shouldn’t be Done! But this Red Line business is just dumb, and America is flying blind, as usual.
Postscript: Today we’re being told that the UN commission of inquiry is “walking back” claims about the Syrian rebels, that they’re “clarifying” Del Ponte’s remarks or “distancing” themselves from them. Except they’re not, they’re saying the same thing Del Ponte said yesterday, that they have evidence but nothing conclusive. The UN has been forced to issue these “clarifications” because the American media employs selective illiteracy when a big, splashy story is in play, so “we have strong suspicions but no conclusive proof that the gas was used by Syrian rebels” becomes “zOMG UN SAYS SYRIAN REBELS TOTALLY GASSED EVERYBODY!” What good is a 24-hour Twitter-and-cable news industry if it can’t breathlessly overhype a story and then blame somebody else for its own failures?