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Obama Administration Announces It’s Still Anguished Over Syria

About midway through a White House conference call Thursday on Syria, the Wall Street Journal email newswire sent out a quick update. It had reported that the United States was proposing a no-fly zone in Syria—a massive step that would represent a severe escalation of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, and an explicit militarization of that involvement. Not so fast! The Journal update noted merely that a U.S. military proposal calls for a no-fly. “The notion that you can solve the deeply rooted challenges on the ground in Syria from the air is not immediately apparent,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said, throwing cold water on the idea.

Mere minutes before the call’s scheduled 5 p.m. start-time, John McCain had announced on the Senate floor that the administration was about to announce “we will be assisting the Syrian rebels by providing them with weapons and other assistance.” Not so fast! Rhodes clarified that the administration has decided merely to increase the level and type of assistance it is providing the opposition. Rhodes declined to elaborate on what exactly that would consist of, and whether it would include weapons.

So mainly, this conference felt like an intermediate step between acknowledging the problem and announcing the solution. It was the sort of call you have when you feel like you need to have a call. The sort of call that is perhaps necessary when all the options (including maintaining the relatively passive status quo) are so undesirable.

The news takeaway from the call is that after months of phumphing, the administration can state with “high confidence” that the Bashar Assad regime has used sarin gas against opposition forces on a small scale multiple times. That is certainly not nothing: It definitively triggers red lines and ups the pressure on international allies and international stumbling blocks like Russia.

But many of the reporters on the conference call—several of whom followed up on each other’s questions with ever-more inventive versions of previous questions (“has the president decided in his mind…?”) to try to get more news—were expecting something additional. Everyone has basically understood for some time now that the regime almost certainly used chemical weapons. And everyone has relatedly understood that the administration is going to have to do something more.

But the administration offered little else in the way of information. The closest breakthrough came when Rhodes said, in response to the probing of CBS News’ Major Garrett, “Suffice to say, this is going to be different in both scope and scale in what we are providing to the [Supreme Military Council, the main rebel body] than what we have provided before.” He would not clarify that. Suffice to say it was not sufficient to say just that! (As Laura Rozen predicted on Twitter, maybe the administration will give the Times a fuller and anonymized read-out. A kosher leak, if you will.) [UPDATE: A few hours later, the administration leaked—to the Times, naturally—that through the CIA it will provide small arms and ammunition to the rebels.]

At other times, Rhodes revealed that the U.S. believes 100 to 150 people died from the detected chemical attacks, adding that this is likely an incomplete figure. He pegged the overall death toll as “more than 90,000”—though many (including the United Nations) estimate the real number is actually closer to 100,000, the official administration number had been a hazy “upwards of 80,000” for quite some time.

The only moment of the call that jolted me out of my hazy, post-5 p.m., listening-to-largely-meaningless-droning existence was when Rhodes spoke briefly about some of the instances of sarin deployment the administration was confident had occurred. “A March 19 attack of this year in an Aleppo suburb,” he said, giving its name. “April 13 attack in Aleppo area.” “May 14 attack in Qusayr.” “May 23 attack in eastern Damascus.” All this year. In the past couple of months, a regime has used chemical weapons on its own people. To say you could picture it would be the wrong word. But it felt chillingly real.

“Tragically,” Rhodes said in conclusion, “I’m sure we’ll be dealing with Syria in the days and weeks to come.”