Obama Was Right to Abandon ‘Red Line’ on Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Donald Trump is blaming his predecessor for the atrocities in Syria but the President was right when he backed Obama’s positon at the time. Can Trump do a new deal to stop the killing?


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

PARIS—Nobody should be surprised that Donald Trump is blaming his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the ghastly chemical-weapons attack in Syria on Tuesday.

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump declared in a statement. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”

That's not true, but that view is, in fact, commonly held by many in Washington and indeed around the world who would agree with Trump about almost nothing else.

As former Secretary of State John Kerry told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last year, “This notion about the red line being crossed and [Obama’s] not doing anything gained a life of its own.”

And now that the Syrian regime appears to be using sophisticated chemical weapons again, Obama’s refusal to enforce that red line is construed as opening the door to the disaster that is Syria today.

As Goldberg wrote after long conversations with Obama and his closest advisers, the pivotal moment came on Aug. 30, 2013. Several days earlier, some 1,400 Syrians were killed with sarin gas on the outskirts of Damascus. The entire administration looked like it was on a war footing. But on that sunny Friday in Washington, Obama decided to pull back from the brink, and walk away from his red line.

Shortly thereafter, in a surprise deal between Obama and Putin, who was Assad’s key sponsor but who had not yet intervened directly in the war, Assad was forced to acknowledge the chemical arsenal he had never admitted to having before. He allowed inspectors into the country to inventory and remove all that he declared that he had, and all that they could find. Some doubts lingered, as Noah Shachtman and I reported in 2014. But there is no question the bulk of his stockpiles were taken away and destroyed.

Would military action in August and September 2013 have accomplished the same goal?

Goldberg’s conclusion was equivocal: “History may record Aug. 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey, or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and ISIS.”

As it happened, that same day, Aug. 30, 2013, I wrote an open letter to Obama in The Daily Beast, making the case that Syria was “not our war.” Only on Tuesday night did I discover Donald Trump was tweeting the same line at the same time—something he now seems to have forgotten.

In the years since, I have grown weary of the taken-for-granted truism that Obama failed on the chemical-weapons front in Syria. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the impact such nerve agents can have. I covered the effects of chemical war in Iraq in the 1980s and early 1990s, and I know that as horrific as the scenes in Syria have been, they pale by comparison to what Saddam Hussein was doing back then in tacit alliance with the United States and its Gulf Arab allies.

If Assad had been able to keep his up-until-2013-undeclared arsenal, he could have waged a campaign similar to Saddam’s, which included the gassing in 1988 of the largely Kurdish city of Halabja, where as many as 5,000 people are believed to have died.

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The lesson learned from that atrocity was fundamental to an understanding of the strategic significance of sophisticated nerve agents like sarin and VX. They are odorless and colorless. They arrive like the Angel of Death passing through the streets, killing you before you have any idea what happened. They are instruments of horror. And once they’ve been used to instill terror, the mere threat that they will be used again is enough to panic whole populations.

All Saddam had to do in 1991 was fly helicopters over Kurdistan and he stampeded hundreds of thousands of people into the mountains on the Turkish frontier, where many died.

As bad as it was, the Obama-Putin deal in 2013 prevented Assad from stampeding his opposition in that way. And it’s clear Assad wished he still had such resources, which is why he has improvised many chemical attacks with the much cruder and less effective industrial chlorine gas. He now appears to have dipped into a hidden supply of nerve agents, or acquired some from outside (from, say North Korea, which uses VX as an assassin’s tool, and which previously helped him try to develop nuclear weapons). It would not be surprising if Assad uses these agents. He is out to end this war, at least in the west of the country, and whatever the uproar, he can expect his potential victims to live in terror, now, as they never have before.

Who can stop him? Once again, it will almost certainly have to be the Russians. We’ll see if Trump can cut a deal with Putin as good as the one Obama got.

* * *

For the record, this is what I wrote on Aug. 30, 2013, when it was clear to me, and I believe to Obama as well, that advocates of holding the red line wanted, in fact, an American intervention that would start out “limited” and end up putting Washington in a position where it had to commit troops to “winning” the war in Syria:

Dear Mr. President [Obama],

Let’s talk about precedents. You’re thinking about doing something in Syria to punish the regime there for using chemical weapons. You say it will be a “limited, tailored” action. But we’ve done this sort of thing before many times in many countries, including Syria, and in almost every case it proved a very bad idea.

I have been a foreign correspondent since 1980 and there has not been a single one of those 33 years when the United States did not engage in an act of war against someone, somewhere. These might be covert actions, like mining the harbors of Nicaragua, or they might be very overt ones, like the invasion of Iraq, but acts of war they were, and there are lessons to be learned from them.

For starters I’d like to suggest, if I may, a couple of general rules:

First, be very wary of the word “credibility,” and of those who tell you that yours or the country’s is on the line if you don’t go to war. Of course you want to stop the use of chemical weapons. Of course that is a red line, as you said. But credibility does not come from actions, it comes from results. And nothing you or those in your administration have talked about doing will solve that problem. The only thing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad really fears is being removed forever from power. And that is not a “limited, tailored” operation.

In the meantime, fewer than 30 percent of Americans support any military action in Syria at all, and the current tracking poll by Reuters/Ipsos shows that as the news from Syria gets worse, opposition to intervention grows greater. The British Parliament’s refusal to go along with Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to join you in military action reflects not only British opinion but world opinion. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic blog, is exactly right when he says the people questioning your credibility are, in fact, a tiny insular inside-the-Beltway elite who’ve convinced themselves that war, for one reason or another, is more credible than peace.

Nothing could be more ironic. If war imbued a president with “credibility,” then George W. Bush would be one of the most credible presidents in the country’s history. I don’t think anyone believes that is the case.

But that brings us to the second general rule: The kind of drumbeat now heard in Washington can lead to what the French call “la logique de guerre,” by which they mean a sort of pathology that takes over politics and the press and eventually a whole people, discouraging all debate and dissension. Costs are not calculated, benefits are fabricated; the rhetoric of glory disguises the grotesque realities of combat until armed confrontation not only seems inevitable, it is inevitable. That was precisely the kind of “logic” that propelled us into Iraq in 2003, and it is precisely the kind of thinking that has to be avoided now.

I think it is safe to assume from everything you have said and done, Mr. President, that you do not want another Iraq or another Afghanistan. But the precedents of not-so-ancient history show us that limited, punitive actions have been at best ineffectual and at worst horrifically counterproductive.

Assad certainly knows this. He grew up staring down the barrels of American and Israeli guns. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he carried out a chemical-weapons attack precisely to call your bluff, knowing that what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. That’s been the case with many tyrants before him, including his father.

In the summer of 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent the United States Marines to Lebanon to try to stabilize the country after the Israelis invaded and then partially withdrew. By the time the Americans left in early 1984, the Marine barracks had been blown up, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers, and the United States Embassy in Beirut had been devastated—twice in two different locations—by enormous car bombs.

Toward the end of that debacle, the U.S. battleship New Jersey shelled enemy positions in Lebanon, and Navy pilots attacked targets inside Syria, where Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator, was defying American demands that he withdraw from Lebanon and quit supporting groups like Hezbollah that were attacking American allies and American soldiers. A U.S. pilot was killed and his navigator was captured. Assad continued to defy the Americans.

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In 1986, the frustrated Reagan administration ordered the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, to punish the dictator Muammar Gaddafi for his support of terrorists. In fact, the bombers did their best to kill Gaddafi himself. (I have a fairly vivid memory of that night, since I was on the ground in Tripoli as the bombs were falling.)

There is a myth—there is no other way to describe it—that after this raid, called “Operation El Dorado Canyon,” Gaddafi was neutralized. Nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact he shifted his support from terrorists targeting Israel to terrorists targeting the United States and Great Britain, where the American bombers were based. The culmination of Gaddafi’s response to El Dorado Canyon was the blowing up of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 innocent people.

Also in the mid-1980s the U.S. Navy set about blowing up Iranian oil derricks and targeting Iran’s warships. In the course of those punitive operations, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 innocent Iranian men, women, and children.

There is a terrible redundancy to all this.

In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein managed to hold on to power despite the fact he’d suffered a massive and humiliating defeat in the Desert Storm campaign that forced him out of Kuwait. The outgoing administration of then-president George H.W. Bush launched a punitive raid against several Iraqi installations in 1993. (I watched from a rooftop as the cruise missiles thundered into various corners of Baghdad.)

For years, American, British, and French warplanes soared over the north and south of Iraq to impose a “no-fly zone.” Yet Saddam remained. In 1998, after Saddam defied UN weapons inspectors, the Clinton administration launched Operation Desert Fox, meant to force his compliance. He refused, and all inspections ended for almost four years. When they resumed, they found nothing. But the logic of war, as the Bush administration understood it, dictated an invasion. We couldn’t be sure Saddam was disarmed unless we occupied his country.

Also in 1998, al Qaeda blew up American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Since Osama bin Laden and his men had found refuge in Sudan and Afghanistan, the Clinton administration launched cruise-missile strikes against both countries, again, with no discernible effect except to embolden bin Laden.

Against this long litany of self-destructive delusions about the effect of limited punitive military actions, there are only a very few examples of relative success.

In 1995 in the Balkans, American-led bombing raids on Serbian communications and command-and-control centers broke a bloody stalemate. The Croatian Army rolled forward on all fronts, and as a result the Serbs were forced to negotiate the Dayton Accords that ended the horrific genocidal war in Bosnia. But there is no force in Syria unified, cohesive, accountable, and powerful enough to play the role the Croatians did at that moment in the Balkans. At some time in the future, if such a force can be found, it could be useful for the Americans to attack Syria’s military infrastructure the way they attacked Serbia’s. But that moment has not yet come.

In 1999, to protect the people of Kosovo from the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the United States lead a NATO coalition (without UN approval) through 78 days of air war, including 38,000 bombing sorties. Not a single American soldier was lost in combat, and eventually, as a result, Milosevic was toppled and tried for war crimes. Kosovo was given its independence.

But that success was the exception rather than the rule, and a very misleading precedent indeed. In 2006, the Israelis thought they could do something similar to eliminate the threat of the Syrian-and-Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. They failed, had to go in on the ground, and the vaunted Israeli Defense Force was fought to a humiliating draw by Assad’s allies.

Finally, there is the example of Libya: a concerted campaign by America and its allies to topple Gaddafi once and for all. It worked, but with much greater difficulty than anticipated, even though it was a war fought essentially along one road that ran along the sea, and the rise of radical Islamist groups inside the country since then—including those implicated in the murder of the American ambassador a year ago—is a cautionary example of what could be in store in post-Assad Syria.

Once again the lesson learned, Mr. President: what doesn’t kill a tyrant makes him stronger. But even when you do kill him, that may not solve your problems, and if you have to occupy his country, you actually make the United States weaker. That’s the real logic of war. Which is why this war should not be our war.

Sincerely, Christopher Dickey