WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's chemical weapons position on Syria may have given Bashar Assad an unintended opening: The embattled Syrian leader appears willing to use other deadly tactics, including Scud missiles, without fear of U.S. retaliation.
The White House casts Assad's escalation against rebel forces as a sign of his growing desperation as his opposition gets stronger and enjoys more international support, including from the United States. But some human rights groups and Middle East experts say Obama's "red line" has given Assad a green light to launch attacks on his own people through other conventional means.
Obama has said Syria's use or movement of its chemical weapons stockpile would change his "calculus" about a conflict the U.S. has been loath to intervene in militarily.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to Republican presidential campaigns, said Obama publicly staking out a red line like that "has the unintended consequence of seeming to ratify anything short of the use of chemical weapons."
More than 40,000 people have died during Assad's two-year crackdown on rebels, according to activists. Opposition fighters have seized large swaths of territory in northern Syria along the border with Turkey and appear to be expanding their control outside Damascus, pushing the fight closer to Assad's seat of power in the capital.
As Assad has come under greater pressure, he has steadily escalated his methods for fighting insurgents. U.S. officials said the Syrian regime launched more than a half-dozen Scud missiles in recent days. It's the first time the Assad government has used such weapons.
Further testing Obama's red line, recent U.S. intelligence reports showed the Syrian regime may be readying its chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them. Those reports drew a sharp warning from Obama, but administration officials said the intelligence fell short of the president's threshold for more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.
Despite Assad's escalating attacks, officials also say the president is not considering reevaluating his red line on Syria. He first articulated it in August, and officials say the U.S. defines movement as Assad handing over the weapons to a terrorist group like Hezbollah.
Obama has never publicly stated how the U.S. would respond if Assad does cross the red line and deploy or prepare to deploy its chemical weapons. Current and former U.S. officials who have been briefed on the matter say options being considered include aerial strikes or limited raids by regional forces to secure the stockpiles. They say the administration remains reluctant to dispatch U.S. forces to Syria, but a U.S. special operations training team is in neighboring Jordan, teaching troops there how to safely secure chemical weapons sites, together with other troops from the region.
"Our policy remains what it was," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. "We believe that providing continued support to the Syrian people and non-lethal support to the opposition is the right approach."
Obama long has called for Assad to leave power, and the U.S. this week formally recognized the rebel-led Syrian Opposition Council as the country's sole legitimate representative. But the U.S., weary after years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to avoid sending American troops into Syria to stem the violence and risk getting drawn into another protracted Middle East conflict.
Officials say Obama settled on the use or proliferation of chemical weapons as his red line because there would be international consensus that such a step would be unacceptable. But those assertions have only increased frustrations among many in the region who question why Assad's other actions have not generated similar promises of international action.
"We hear a lot from people on the ground who say, `So we won't be killed by chemical weapons, but killing us with a machine gun is OK?" said Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based official with the international organization Human Rights Watch.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week "there is no doubt that there's a line between even the horrors that they've already inflicted on the Syrian people and moving to what would be an internationally condemned step of utilizing their chemical weapons."
The Assad government insists it would not use such weapons against Syrians, though it carefully does not admit to having them. The regime is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war.