In a December 4 speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Obama said "I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
Damascus received warnings from other European leaders as well. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of a military option should Assad cross the red line and French president Francois Hollande declared unequivocally that "the international community will not stand idly by."
These leaders' warnings were prompted by American intelligence reports, released at the end of 2012, saying that the Syrian military was preparing for the possible use of sarin nerve gas against the rebels. According to intelligence gathered by the West, chemical weapons had been loaded onto shells that were meant to be fired at civilian population centers as part of the Syrian regime's battle against the rebels, a battle that has lasted for over two years.
On several occasions the rebels claimed the Syrian military was using chemical weapons against them, but those reports could not be verified and were therefore interpreted as an attempt by the rebels to pressure the international community to intervene on their behalf and topple the regime.
By the end of March 2013, evidence that the Syrian regime had used sarin gas against its opposition had grown stronger. Victims' testimony was published, as were photos of bodily injury to rebels. British labs confirmed that soil samples taken from areas reported to have been bombarded with chemical weapons were indeed contaminated. The soil samples had been smuggled from near Damascus in late March in a secret and daring operation by the agents of the British MI6 Secret Intelligence Service operating in Syria.
That is why it is clear that even before Gen. Itai Baron, head of the research division at IDF Military Intelligence, confirmed publicly that chemical weapons were being used in Syria, Western intelligence, including the Americans, already knew about it. The timing of the report surprised them -- but its content did not.
The Americans attempted evasion, even though they already possessed this information. President Obama declared last week that "we now have evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria," but "we don't know who used them. We don't have a chain of custody."
This shows that the United States, along with other Western leaders, are not interested in military intervention in Syria to topple Assad.
This is Obama's moment of truth. The lack of an appropriate military response in Syria will prove to the world, and especially to Iran, that his threats hold no weight. The conclusion is obvious: In the long run, Israel will not be able to rely on Western threats against Iran's nuclear program, because when push comes to shove they could turn out to be empty threats.
The West will not agree with Israel's red line, and will have a hard time admitting it was ever crossed. It will seek compromises and dither -- past the stage when it is possible to act militarily.
The writer is head of the Middle East Studies department at Western Galilee College.