Holding the Line in Aleppo?
The image of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year old Syrian boy pulled from a damaged building in rebel-held Aleppo covered in dried blood, has captured the world’s attention. Omran Daqneesh shows us the human cost of failing to enforce red lines. A “red line” is an unequivocal threat designed to get the other side to back down. But, for President Barack Obama, they work in the reverse: every time he draws a “red line,” he backs down.
In 2012, President Obama drew a “red line” against chemical warfare in Syria.
In 2013, he backed down.
At the United Nations in 2015, President Obama drew another “red line” that threatened the use of force if chlorine weapons were used in Syria. Once again he backed down.
During the current siege of Aleppo, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, stated that it appears that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has used chlorine weapons against a rebel-held neighborhood. The Obama Administration has responded with a press release that did not threaten any consequences. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power denounced the “horrific and continuous use of chemical weapons by Syria” without specifying whether any action would be taken against Assad.
Will Barack Obama ever enforce any of the “red lines” he has drawn against Syria’s use of chemical weapons?
In September 2012, President Obama said in a news conference, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” With those few words, Obama mortgaged our reputation and credibility. But after Bashar Assad killed over 1,000 civilians with sarin gas in an attack outside of Damascus in 2013, Obama defaulted on his obligation. He wrecked our credibility.
Russian president Vladimir Putin swooped in with a diplomatic solution that supposedly disarmed Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile. Yet, the Assad regime continued using chemical weapons. A new U.N. report is likely to attribute a number of chemical weapons attacks over the past three years to the Assad regime. In March 2015, the Obama administration sponsored and passed a UN Security Council Resolution that threatened the use of force if chlorine weapons were used in Syria. A March 2016 report stated that 161 chemical weapons attacks were responsible for the deaths of nearly 1,500 civilians and 14,581 injuries. It estimated that nearly one-third of these used chlorine gas.
A majority of the attacks occurred after the 2015 UN Security Council resolution that threatened the use of force in retaliation for the use of chlorine gas against civilians. These are the costs of failing to enforce red lines. After the recent attack in Aleppo, will President Obama finally enforce the “red line” he drew in 2012?
Will he make good on his threats at the U.N. in 2015? Or, will he back down again?
President Obama’s actions in Syria in 2013 damaged America’s ability to make credible threats to its enemies and dependable promises to its allies. In an interview with Foreign Policy, former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel said of Obama’s August 2013 decision to back down, “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.” Hagel told Foreign Policy that his counterparts throughout the world told him that Obama’s decision to erase his “red line” shook their confidence in the forty-fourth president.
Both history and professional experience on the House Foreign Affairs Committee has shown me that credibility counts in foreign policy.
First, when leaders break their commitments, it demonstrates that they are incapable of managing a country’s foreign policy. Immediately after the Munich Crisis, it is true that then prime minister Neville Chamberlain was greeted with parades and public applause. However, when Hitler’s true colors were revealed, history was less kind to him. Today he is regarded as one of Britain’s worst prime ministers, and the critics of Munich, starting with Winston Churchill, are seen as having been far-sighted.