Barack Obama has said weapons of mass destruction would be a “red line” in the Syria conflict. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

President Obama set a trap for himself last year, when he said that if Syria were to use chemical weapons in the civil war there it would be a “game changer” that would trigger direct US involvement. Now, it appears, he’s stepped in it.

In 2012, Obama managed to veto a plan proposed to him by nearly his entire national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, General Martin Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, last but not least, General David Petraeus of the CIA. Among other things, they wanted the United States to send advanced weapons to the rebels in Syria, many of whom are radical-right, fundamentalist Muslims allied to Al Qaeda. Rightly, Obama said no. But the “red line” about Syrian weapons of mass destruction was left open.

Uh oh.

If, indeed, the United States goes to war in Syria, it will look less like Iraq 2003–11 and more like Afghanistan 1979–88, that is, a war in which the United States backs an Islamist-dominated insurgency against a Russian-backed regime. Of course, the United States is already involved. The CIA is training Syrian rebels in Jordan, and it is coordinating the flow of arms to the rebel fighters from their anti-democratic, kleptocratic backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who see the battle in Syria in part as a Sunni-led jihad against an apostate, quasi-Shiite government controlled by the Alawites and allied to Iran.

Does Obama want to get mixed up even further in a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict, one that is already having blackly devastating effects next door in Iraq? Let’s hope not.

Virtually the entire right, from John McCain to The Wall Street Journal to the neoconservative movement and The Washington Times, is thumping the tubs for war against Syria. Now that the White House has acknowledged, with some caveats, that sarin gas has apparently been used in Syria, President Obama will come under enormous, and probably irresistible, pressure to go to war. Still, the White House is cautious in its assessments, and in its letter to Congress the White House said:

Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient. Only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.

You can read the whole text of the White House letter here.

Nowhere does the Obama administration say what it might do. But the options seem ominous: drone strikes, a raid by US Special Forces to seize chemical weapons stockpiles, an all-out decision to arm the rebels, air strikes against Syrian military positions and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, complete with air strikes to destroy President Assad’s air force. Maybe all of that.

The New York Times reports:

The Pentagon, administration officials said, has prepared the president a menu of options that include commando raids that would secure chemical weapons stockpiles and strikes on Syrian planes from American ships in the Mediterranean. Last year, the United States secretly sent a 150-member task force to Jordan to help deal with the possibility that Syria would lose control of its stockpiles. Mr. Obama could also provide more robust aid to the rebels, including weapons.

Even Congress is divided, and at least one former Obama administration official, Gary Samore, said that despite the “red line” threats there are few reliable options for the United States to pursue. “If you look at all the options… there are just so many of them that you’re talking about a very large-scale military intervention,” he said. “The military options are really horrendous.” He’s right. Indeed, the United States can kill a lot of Syrians, cripple Assad’s forces and tilt the balance of the war back in favor of the opposition. But then what? There’s no clear result, and in the meantime the war will spread more rapidly into Lebanon, Jordan, and especially into Iraq.

In Iraq, the polarization and low-level conflict there that has produced violence for years is accelerating wildly now, with armed Sunni tribes nearing all-out revolt against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian, Shiite government. Some of the Sunnis are closely tied to the Syrian rebels, and Maliki is supporting Assad and getting help from Assad’s chief ally, Iran. Al Qaeda in Iraq recently announced that it is one and same organization as the Al Nusra Front in Syria, and the two groups have united under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Every notch up in the war in Syria ratchets up the conflict in Iraq, too, and if the United States gets directly involved in Syria it will lead it to a head-on confrontation with Iraq.

But the terrible consequences likely to follow from attacking Syria haven’t dissuaded Representative John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, from demanding war. “After two years of brutal conflict, it’s past time for the president to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad’s tyranny to an end,” Boehner said.

Fact is, if gas was used in Syria, it would appear to have been a very small case or two, perhaps in Aleppo and Damascus, perhaps by a rogue commander or perhaps as a test of American resolve by Assad. It’s possible that Syria might escalate the use of gas, but it’s far more likely that Assad has gotten Obama’s message from last December loud and clear, and that he won’t risk forcing America’s hand. That’s especially true because from recent battle reports it appears that pro-Assad forces are making significant gains in the fighting.

As of yet, Obama hasn’t committed to yet another war in Southwest Asia. But the squeeze is on. War, however, isn’t the answer. Diplomacy is.

To truly take steps to end the Syria conflict—and avoid a proxy war—the US will need to strike a deal with Russia, Robert Dreyfuss writes.