The issues in Syria we are told by the Obama administration and its allies, are clear-cut. America has no choice but to act. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The current face-off between the U.S. and Syria is the product of blurred rhetoric, diplomatic double talk, and shocking miscalculations from both sides. The upshot: the U.S. and a few of its allies are ready—once again to unleash a volley of sophisticated weapons against another Middle East dictator, with no solid legal basis nor any realistic goals in mind.

For example, one of the questions many are asking is: knowing how devastating the U.S. response would be, why would Assad risk using chemical weapons?

The answer is that Assad didn’t know what the U.S. response would be.

Indeed, President Obama was less than precise when he made his statement at a press conference August 20, 2012 that the introduction of chemical weapons in Syria., might change his decision not to order a U.S. military engagement.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.

Furthermore, we are told that many of Obama’s aides were taken aback by that new and vague policy declaration, the President in effect painting himself into a very imprecise corner.

Just the same, after Obama had issued that warning. why would Assad have risked using chemical weapons in the horrific attack this past week, killing hundreds of his own people.

One part of the answer is that Assad’s forces had apparently already used chemical weapons, in much smaller doses over the past few months, triggering little more than a tepid response from America and its allies, Obama declaring a vague intention to arm the rebels — though such arms have yet to get through.

Another part of the answer is that the August 21 chemical attack may have been a dumb miscalculation on the part of one or more of Assad’s commanders, rather than the result of an order from Assad himself. That, according to Foreign Policy magazine, was the conclusion that U.S. intelligence drew after listening to intercepts as “an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.”

Thus, it is not at all clear that the slaughter was not the work of one or more Syrian officers overstepping their bounds. “Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

It was thus revealing when the New York Times reported today that

“American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation…But even without hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack, administration officials asserted, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.

“The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership,” said the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf — even if, she added, “He’s not the one who pushes the button or says ‘go’ on this.”

Of course, using that same doctrine others might argue — as they often do — that American Presidents, like George W. Bush, or yes, even Barack Obama, should be held responsibility for the atrocities committed in the field by their forces.

But that’s probably not something the White House would like to discuss at this time.

Photo by HonestReporting under Creative Commons license