With U.S. intelligence reports indicating "with varying degrees of confidence" that the Assad regime is using sarin gas, a chemical weapon, against his own people, it would appear as though the Syrian government has crossed President Obama’s "red line," which the president had warned would be "a grave mistake" for Assad.
The difficult choice of what the U.S. response should be is complicated by the way the civil war has evolved, particularly in the composition of the rebel forces. A few major rebel groups exist, notably the Free Syrian Army composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and volunteers, and the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups. Both organizations are part of the Syrian National Coalition presided over by moderate imam Moaz al-Khatib. The Syrian National Council holds 22 of the 63 coalition seats. The coalition held elections in March and elected Ghassan Hitto as the prime minister of a Syrian interim government. Internationally, the coalition has gained recognition by 20 states including the U.S., with the others mostly in Western Europe and the Middle East.
In part due to the support of the West and Turkey, the Syrian National Coalition is not recognized by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which controls the north of Syria, or the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria. This division makes effective intervention on behalf of the rebels particularly difficult.
In fact, the Al-Nusra Front has even taken credit for some of the $385 million in humanitarian aid the United States has contributed to date. In a released copy of his prepared statement for the Senate this coming Thursday, Ambassador Robert Ford writes that "The Assad regime has created an environment that fuels the growth of extremism, and Al-Qaeda linked groups are working to exploit the situation for their own benefit. There is a real competition now between extremists and moderates in Syria and we need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance."
On the ground, the rebels have been attempting to seize airbases across the country to weaken Assad's ability to use helicopter and jet strikes to resist the advancing rebels. This week has seen the rebels engage in fighting at two air bases in the north, one in the northwestern Idlib province, and the second in Aleppo. Fighting continues at both bases. In Daraa province, rebels have acquired an air force battalion and its weapons cache. In response, Syrian forces shelled two villages near Aleppo. While rebels continue their advance and even conducted an attempted assassination of the prime minister, the Assad regime remains operational, in part due to continued support from Iran.
As Foreign Policy’s The Cable has reported, March was the deadliest month in the almost two-year old civil war, with more that 6,000 casualties, bringing the total death toll for the conflict to approximately 70,000. This same report warns that Iran and extremist Al-Qaeda affiliates are increasing their influence on both sides of the Syrian conflict. Iran continues to support Hezbollah in their "ongoing provision of personnel, guidance, and material and financial assistance" to Assad, while Al-Qaeda recently announced the extension of its "Islamic State" into Syria.
Given these complications, and the most recent NYT/CBS poll showing that 62% of Americans do not believe the United States has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, Obama may be willing to let Assad call his bluff and further delay the administration's response to the chemical weapons claims. In a letter to Senator McCain, the White House even admitted that Assad likely used chemical weapons, but stated that that the next course of action would be to "[work] with our friends and allies [and press] for a comprehensive United Nations investigation" to confirm U.S. intelligence reports.