I was skeptical at first about the claims of a chemical attack in Syria. Something didn’t seem right with the photographs. Additionally, it was reported that the United Nations already had an inspection team in Syria. But then it didn’t take long for Israeli intelligence to determine that chemical weapons had been used.

How did Israeli intelligence come to its conclusion so soon without any apparent sources on the ground? I don’t know, but David Martin of CBS reported something suggestive this past Friday.
Administration officials said Friday that U.S. intelligence detected activity at known Syrian chemical weapons sites before Wednesday’s possible chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,000 people, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.

Similar activity has been detected before, and the assumption then was that the Syrians were moving things around for security reasons. Now, according to the officials, the most recent activity, which was detected last week, is seen as possible preparation for Wednesday’s attack.
According to earlier reports the United States was monitoring Syria’s chemical weapon stores. For example CBS reported this past December.

Monitoring of Syrian bases has picked up evidence engineers have loaded the chemicals — which combine to form the deadly nerve agent sarin — into bombs that could be dropped from airplanes. Satellites have seen trucks moving among the bunkers where the weapons and agents are believed to be stored. U.S. officials say the evidence is strong, but circumstantial — not definitive. But, that, combined with fighting in the suburbs of Damascus, has led to fears of what the Assad regime might do if it feels cornered.
But if the United States had been tracking the weapons, and chemical weapons had previously been used, why didn’t the United States act to prevent their deployment? Last week’s report leaves out specifics. Was the detected activity something that was detected previously prior to chemical attacks? Or was the activity something that was detected without any deadly followup? (David Martin’s report suggests the last possibility, but doesn’t tell us enough to know for certain.) Presumably, Israeli intelligence came to its conclusion based on activity it detected. According to Syrian rebels the chemicals were delivered by four rockets fired to the targeted neighborhoods, as opposed to being dropped from airplanes in bombs. Jamraya, where Syria has a military research center that Israel has reportedly struck is between 10 and 15 miles away from the neighborhoods attacked by Assad’s forces last Wednesday. Israel was possibly trying to destroy Syria’s capacity for delivering the chemical agents. If that was Israel’s goal, then it was apparently not fully successful.

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Obviously there is a lot that we don’t know. But if David Martin is correct and the United States didn’t act when it could have prevented a huge loss of life, what is the point of “red lines?” Having a “red line” and daring a tyrant to cross it will never be as effective as proactively taking action against the tyrant.

Obama Credit: His Red Lines, by Ranan Lurie (Wiki Commons)

President Obama said:
But Obama added that “the notion that the [United States] can somehow solve what is a sectarian complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.”
If we’re looking at the big picture, the President is correct. But if the question is whether the United States had the ability to prevent a catastrophe and didn’t act, the answer is not as clear.
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