One of the story lines about President Obama’s “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons is that he stumbled into it, and now, having done so, is looking to Congress or the Russians to bail him out. That is a complete misreading of the record.
What has gone on for the past 15 months has been a continuous game of cat and mouse, with Obama being the cat and Syrian’s President Bashar al-Assad the mouse. Every time the U.S. received intelligence that Syria was preparing chemical weapons for use, the U.S. issued a strong public statement. Casual readers of the news may think that this Syria red line just came out of the blue, but really it didn’t.
You can fault Barack Obama for not selling to the public the red line better, or you can blame us in the press for not paying much attention to the red line until last month, or you can blame last year’s U.S. presidential election campaign for being more focused on the attack against U.S. diplomats in Benghazi than a far more important war in a far more important country, Syria. [In two years, 100,000 people have died in Syria. It took nearly 10 years of war in Iraq after we invaded in 2003 to kill that many Iraqi civilians.] But you can’t say with much justification that Obama did a big “oops” into the Syrian mud puddle.
This red line was drawn purposefully and publicly. It actually started emerging in June 2012 and has been evolving since. You can even find antecedents for the red line in Obama’s acceptance speech in December 2009 for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Statements from Obama, the White House, and the Defense and State departments have been consistently forceful for more than a year now, as I’ll outline below, and the evidence points strongly to the president believing that this is something that the world community should be outraged about, and not just an ad hoc position he fell into one day. And he has taken steps consistently to let the Syrian regime know that this would be a red line for the United States.
The disposition and potential use of Syria’s chemical weapons has actually been a concern to U.S., Israeli, and Jordanian intelligence agencies since the Syria civil war first started heating up in mid-2011. Syria is thought by most arms control experts to have the world’s third largest stockpile of chemical weapons, after Russia and the United States. Moscow and Washington, under a treaty, are slowly destroying all of their chemical weapons under international monitoring.
The concern also accelerated over the course of the civil war as it became apparent that Syria, according to the rebels and human rights groups, and U.S. intelligence, was using just about every weapon in its arsenal against its own people: Scud missiles, which can destroy entire buildings, helicopter gunships to shoot civilians from the air, cluster bombs, and thermobaric weapons, which are fuel-air incendiary bombs, akin to napalm, which can burn wide swaths of territory, or people.
It appears that the U.S. government, and perhaps the Israeli government too, sent a private message to Assad sometime in June or July of 2012 warning him not to use, or transfer to any terrorist group, any of his chemical weapons. We know this because the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, called an unusual and sudden press conference on July 23, 2012, that was featured live on Syrian state television. In that conference, the spokesman, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press, confirmed for the first time publicly that Syria possessed chemical weapons (something Damascus had always dodged before) but vowed that it would never use them against its own people. Makdissi also said that the weapons were under firm control of the military’s generals and are not likely to be lost to the rebels.
Makdissi added that the only time Syria would ever use chemical weapons is if the country were attacked by a foreign power. And he said he called the news conference to resist foreign pressure about the chemical weapons, which he said the United States was using as a pretext to invade Syria.
Indeed, the day after Jihad Makdissi, on July 24, 2012, made his statement, Obama made his first public statement about Syria’s chemical weapons. “Given the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching — and that they will be held accountable by the international community, and the United States, should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons,” Obama told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno during a campaign swing through Nevada.
Notice that Obama said “continue to make clear,” meaning that some message had already been sent to Assad.
A month later, on August 20, at a White House news conference, Obama was asked about Syria and used, pointedly, the red-line language, twice. It wasn’t random or ad hoc, it was clearly purposeful, as are about 90 percent of presidential statements at news conferences. Here are Obama’s comments:
“I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
“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…We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.”
Almost four months later, after the fall election campaign was over, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on December 6 made tough remarks on the red line in a speech at an international conference in Dublin. She also set up a special meeting there with the Russian foreign minister to discuss U.S. concerns that the Syrian regime was getting more desperate and might be making preparations to use chemical weapons. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta the same day reiterated the concern: “We remain very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” Panetta said. “The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered.”
After those warnings in August, and December, when intelligence reports indicated that the Syrians were getting chemical weapons ready for use, the Syrians seemed to have been deterred. But on December 23, reports out of Syria indicated a first-use of chemical weapons. The U.S. National Security Council after looking into that incident released a statement on January 16 that the Dec. 23 incident didn’t seem consistent with what the U.S. intelligence community knew about Syria’s chemical weapons. [See the excellent timeline on this put together by the Arms Control Association.]
It’s also useful to remember that throughout this period, from the red-line warning in August 2012 to after the U.S. presidential campaign in November, the U.S. was in negotiations with the Russians to see if Moscow could get Assad, its longtime ally, to the bargaining table with the rebels and somehow stop the violence. Those efforts were considerable, but they did not succeed.
The next big landmark in this cat and mouse game came on March 19 when rebel forces reported two attacks by Assad’s forces with chemical weapons, in suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus in which as many as 25 people died. The outcry was swift, especially from European governments, which condemned the attack. The United Nations quickly called for an investigation, and Assad assented publicly to a U.N. probe, but then dragged his feet and blocked permission for a U.N. team to enter the country.
Over the next three or four weeks came three other alleged chemical attacks. Finally on April 25, the Obama administration sent a letter to Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich. The letter reiterated Obama’s red line, and said “Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin.”
On June 13, the White House raised its level of confidence and said it had “high confidence” that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons multiple times over the previous year. But officials said they wanted hard evidence, perhaps from the U.N. investigative mission, before the U.S. government would act. The U.N. team was finally granted permission to enter on August 14, five months after it had requested permission from Assad.
Then on August 21 this year came the large scale chemical attack that triggered the recent events (and the horrible videos) and threat by Obama to launch a military strike. In recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry in his briefings to Congress has said the Obama administration believes that 11 chemical weapons attacks took place in Syria over the past year before the August 21 attack.
Obama’s statements on Syria’s chemical weapons have been consistent and purposeful since his first mention of it in July last year. And even going back further to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December 2009 when in arguing for the necessity of military action in some circumstances, Obama said:
“More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region. I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
But Obama cannot get a clear U.N. mandate in Syria. Russia will veto it because of its long-time ties to Syria, and because Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is on the Syrian coast. NATO isn’t interested because it can act only when a member state is threatened. No European member is being attacked by Syria, although you could argue that Turkey, a NATO member, is threatened by the instability along its long southern border with Syria, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey.
So Obama can’t get a U.N. or NATO mandate, but at least he can, maybe, get a mandate from the American people through the Congress. He may yet lose that vote, or this Russian proposal may present a way out of the crisis. We’ll see in the next few weeks.
But this was not an Obama stumble. All indicators are that this is something he cares about and is ready to act on that belief. Just as he did in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the intense drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. Don’t count this president out yet. He’s far from done.