Alex Witt   |  April 27, 2013

The thinning red line with Syria

NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel gives MSNBC’s Alex Witt the latest on the situation in Syria. Engel gauges the White House’s reaction to the potential use of chemical weapons. He also reveals the diplomatic difficulties in dealing with Syria.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> alex witt ." at the half hour now, new intelligence reports about syria 's possible use of chemical weapons . is putting president obama under increasing pressure to take action today. but the president is being careful not to rush to judgment.

>> knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of syria , doesn't tell us when they were used, how they were used.

>> nbc's chief foreign correspondent richard engel has been monitoring the situation and he joins me now. awfully good to have you here to talk about this because it's a very, very sensitive issue, as you know. the president said last summer that if the assad regime were to use chemical weapons , that would be crossing a red line of sorts and he avoided using the term friday, calling it instead a game changer. interpret all this for me.

>> he's used game changer in the past and white house officials are still talking about a red line . when you think about chemical weapons use or even nuclear weapon use, you think of a mass attack of what happened when the saddam hussein government punished a city, town in this case, and killed thousands of people. or the chemical gas attacks in world war i where thousands died in clouds of mustard gas . what seems to have happened in syria on perhaps two occasions is there were a small number of casualties, and small amounts of sarin were found. now, i'm not trying to say that that wasn't a bad thing. but it's not what you would expect when you're using a weapon of mass destruction . is that, was it an accident? were they intending to kill more people but the weapons didn't function properly? were they sending a message to the opposition, or to us? it wasn't a mass casualty chemical weapons -style attack. there's something strange about what happened. the intelligence is pretty solid that from tissue and blood samples, blood samples i think they are, the chemical weapon was detected in the victims.

>> hmm.

>> but, when -- i remember when this attack first happened, this last one and all the allegations were made last month, and i was watching the death toll , and i thought, okay, we've heard chemical weapons are now being used, the death toll is going to go up to hundreds. and then we're going to see a military intervention and this is changed. this is a different war right now. but in the end, it was like 10 or 15 or 20 people who were killed, and that's not a typical sarin gas attack . so there's something that doesn't quite add up.

>> but from what you know, would someone try to launch a sarin gas attack on 15 or 20 people?

>> you don't do it. it doesn't make a lot of sense.

>> so having done this --

>> it's like building a tiny, tiny little nuclear bomb and using it to blow up a house. you can find the nuclear residue , you can find the radiological material, but why?

>> so then with logic, was this a mistake? or was this somehow an ability to just send a message like, we're showing you a little bit of what we have in our arsenal?

>> we know he has chemical weapons in his arsenal. that's well documented. and we know roughly how many sites they have. so, you don't need to send that message, everyone knows that.

>> how does the president interpret this? i mean what are his options here?

>> well, the -- he's talking about sending it to the u.n. for investigation. and that, frankly, is a little weak considering there have been many u.n. investigations in the past, and they haven't gone anywhere. there were u.n. teams on the ground for over a year in syria , they had no cooperation. there's a u.n. investigation ongoing right now, the personnel aren't even being allowed in to syria . so looking, tossing it back in to the u.n.'s corner, hoping that there's going to be some sort of great internationally recognized, decisive, investigation, is probably not going to happen. i think what they're hoping for is if they can solidify the evidence a little more, they can use it in back channel talks with the russians, and use it to get the russians more on board.

>> yeah.

>> but from the syrian -- i spent yesterday, i'm here in washington with a lot of syrian activists and people who follow this cause quite closely, i was with them yesterday, and they are incredibly disappointed. they want to see a much stronger position from the obama administration. they say, okay, yes, it wasn't a mass gassing, but why does that have to happen before more -- before more action. before more help? and they're not talking about u.s. marines occupying syria . they're talking about a no-fly zone, or a buffer zone .

>> so this is absolutely to be continued. so we'll do so with your help down the road. thank you.

>> thank you.