What Red Line Tells Us About Syria’s Chemical Weapons

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What Red Line Tells Us About Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Book review: Joby Warrick’s book brings to life the history and reaction to Syria’s chemical weapons program and the difficulty in eliminating it.

In 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an exposé compiling the evidence that Assad held back much of his arsenal. The article described how Syria restricted the movements of UN inspectors while offering implausible explanations for the whereabouts of missing weapons and equipment. Significant details there line up with Warrick’s account. For example, both describe the regime’s inability to account for hundreds of tons of mustard agent, a less potent chemical weapon. Where the Journal differs with Red Line is its reporting that the CIA initially had confidence in Assad’s disclosures, with serious doubts only emerging in 2015. Given that both accounts rely on confidential sources, it is hard for any third party to judge their relative merits. If the CIA did believe Assad at first, then Obama and Kerry’s public comments would seem defensible. Perhaps new reporting or declassifications will someday shed further light on this question.

For readers, it may be hard to compare how Obama and Donald Trump grappled with the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons because Red Line devotes minimal space to the Trump era. The relevant material covers about twelve pages across the final three chapters. The corresponding footnotes cite two interviews with Trump NSC officials, in contrast to the long list of Obama appointees who spoke with Warrick. That said, the discussion of Syria policy under Trump is not a simple indictment. The book notes that Trump’s 2017 airstrikes, responding to the use of sarin, even had the support of “weary UN officials and aid workers who had witnessed the regime’s brutality up close.” Much more vocal was Kassem Eid, a Syrian activist who survived the 2013 sarin attack in East Ghouta, who told CNN, “I cried out of joy. I thanked God.” Eid told another journalist, “I’ll name my son Donald,” a comment that went viral on Twitter. (p.277) Correctly, the book describes as “measured” the 2017 airstrikes on al-Shayrat airbase. “By the next morning,” Warrick notes, “Syrian warplanes were taking off from al-Shayrat for their daily bombing runs.” (p.277) Following a chlorine attack in 2018, Trump ordered another punitive strike, this time with French and British participation, yet the damage was once again limited.

As such, Warrick’s praise for the efficacy of Obama’s diplomacy versus Trump’s airstrikes overlooks two important considerations. First, Trump’s airstrikes were mainly symbolic, so they hardly demonstrate whether the use of force—preferably combined with astute diplomacy—might have secured a true surrender of Assad’s stockpiles. Many analysts, myself included, recommended the minimum price for a chemical attack be the complete destruction of Assad’s air force. Second, Obama’s diplomacy resulted in the (partial) surrender of the Syrian arsenal because the threat of serious retaliation was so credible amid the global outrage that followed the slaughter in East Ghouta. A simplified comparison of Obama’s diplomacy with Trump’s air strikes falls into the common trap of treating diplomacy and force as alternatives, not complements. With regard to chemical weapons as well as Syria policy more broadly, both Obama and Trump compiled a record of failure because neither one figured out how to combine force and diplomacy.

While the red line debate is anchored in Syria, it is also inseparable from broader arguments regarding whether overextension or resignation is the greater threat to U.S. national security. As Obama prepared to leave office, he sought to recast his red line decision as a model of heroic restraint. “I’m very proud of [that] moment,” Obama said. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far,” he added, “the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest” avoided a debacle.

Red Line, despite its name, barely touches on the afterlife of Obama’s decision; however, Warrick’s account of how it was made emphasizes the influence of public opinion rather than principled restraint. Obama’s national security team “overwhelmingly favored a military strike” and the president intended “to launch the attack within days.” (p.73) Then the British Parliament voted against intervention, leading Obama to hesitate and seek congressional approval for military action, mistakenly presuming lawmakers would support him. Instead, opinion polls and constituent opposition turned Congress against intervention. Yet “we didn’t have a Plan B,” Samantha Power, then-U.S. ambassador to the UN, tells Warrick. (p.109) All that saved the policy from unraveling was the Russian president’s unexpected offer to have Assad turn over his arsenal.

A pleasure to read, Red Line also comprises a valuable addition to the growing literature on the war in Syria. In addition to recounting the unlikely stories of Ayman the chemist as well as Tim Blades and the Margarita Machine, the book includes equally compelling accounts with characters ranging from UN weapons inspectors and Syrian doctors to Islamic State operatives planning their own chemical attacks. In Warrick’s hands, their experiences come alive.

David Adesnik is FDD’s Director of Research and their senior fellow on Syria.

Image: Reuters.