“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.”
So it was that a redline was drawn against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to destroy the rebel forces that threatened his hold on power.
But nothing happened. By the spring of 2013 there were numerous reports of chemical weapons being used by the Syrian military, culminating in the launch of sarin-laden rockets into the rebel-held region of Ghouta. That attack, the deadliest since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988, killed 1,400 civilians, many of whom were children.
The Obama Administration labeled this a “Munich moment,” a reference to Britain’s decision to appease Germany rather than go to war with Hitler, and seemed prepared to engage in substantial military action. But they then promised that any military action would be “unbelievably small.” And then, in response to a question by reporters as to whether there was something Assad could do to avoid U.S. strikes, then-Secretary of State John Kerry responded “sure.”
“Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said, throwing up his hands in a flippant manner. Kerry even went on to say, “but he isn’t about to do it,” adding that “it can’t be done, obviously.”
The Obama White House panicked, attempting to downplay Kerry’s remarks as a “hypothetical” and “rhetorical.” But sending a window of opportunity, Russia jumped in to leverage the gaffe toward their benefit in Syria and the region.
“We are calling on the Syrian leadership not just to agree to put chemical-weapons stores under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Syria also saw an opportunity and quickly accepted. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad said it “welcomes the Russian initiative,” adding that they also “welcome the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is trying to prevent American aggressions against our people.”
Of course the deal was going to be a farce. Russia, a close ally of Syria, voted against the UN Security Council condemnation of Assad’s chemical weapons attack on civilians in Homs. Now they would be the ones to enforce the removal of the same weapons that they formally expressed they didn’t have a problem with. If anything, this pushed the two allies into closer alignment and gave Russia a strategic leg up in a region in which they are desperate to demonstrate their power.
So it wasn’t surprising when Kerry, who once gloated that they “struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” publicly acknowledged in a farewell memo to staff that “unfortunately other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly against the Syrian people.”
This became crystal clear when Assad, who had retreated to using chlorine gas (which was omitted from the deal to remove chemical weapons), once again graduated to using sarin, a deadly nerve agent. Not only using it, but producing and storing up significant quantities of it.
Following the U.S. missile strike in 2017 in retaliation for yet another chemical weapons attack, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said they took steps “to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas … so that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.”
In other words, the Assad regime has been in open contravention of its 2013 deal with the U.S., the UN Resolution that underpins it, and the Chemical Weapons Convention that they acceded to following the 2013 attacks. The Obama Administration made a habit of ignoring Syrian atrocities, thereby eroding American credibility in the Middle East, and worse, normalizing the use of chemical weapons.
President Trump is working to reestablish accountability in the region. By engaging key allies and responding to any use of chemical weapons with force, the Trump Administration is sending a clear message that America’s promises matter once again. Other regimes and dictators must now take note. Should they opt to use chemical weapons against their foes, the United States will respond.
Inevitably dictators will test the boundaries of American commitment. And almost assuredly Assad will eventually resume chemical attacks against anyone who threatens his regime. But there can also be no question that Trump’s swift, decisive action will make even the most deranged autocrats question whether they really want to cross the reestablished red line. In that way he’s made the world safer from chemical terror. Mission accomplished indeed.