Untangling the Myths of U.S. 'Red Lines' in Syria

Untangling the Myths of U.S. 'Red Lines' in Syria
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Untangling the Myths of U.S. 'Red Lines' in Syria
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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Soon after the latest round of U.S. missile strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, headlines in the National Review on April 16th screamed: “Operational-level Strikes Finally Enforce Obama’s Red Line.”

Conventional wisdom in many foreign policy circles suggests that President Obama drew and then failed to enforce a clear red line against Syrian use of chemical weapons in 2012-2013.  Critics point to the absence of U.S. military strikes in response to Assad’s chemical weapons attacks in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21, 2013, killing some 1400 people as prima facie evidence of this failure. 

Former Secretary of State Kerry and others have argued that this failure has come at a significant cost to the credibility of American foreign policy both in the Middle East and beyond.  Moreover, despite earlier criticism of Obama’s declaration of his red line as ill-advised, President Trump himself has nonetheless come to embrace Obama’s failure to enforce it as “a bad day for this country.”

However, it is important for policymakers to closely examine the actual circumstances surrounding this alleged failure if they are to develop realistic goals and expectations for U.S. policy and actions in Syria going forward.

First, President Obama’s “red line” was more ambiguous than often portrayed by his critics.  The declaration of this red line was not the result of a carefully deliberated policy process or planned strategic communications strategy.  Instead, his statement was a rather off-handed remark made in response to a reporter’s question during a press conference.  Moreover, these remarks did not explicitly state that the use of military force was the sole or even primary U.S. response under consideration in response to a (then) hypothetical future use of chemical weapons by Assad. Instead, President Obama noted that he was monitoring the situation in Syria “very carefully….[that] we have put together a range of contingency plans…[and that] a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” He also pledged unspecified but “enormous consequences” should that line be crossed which many have assumed could only imply large-scale military action.  Nevertheless, President Obama’s words did leave him some flexibility in crafting an American response short of military action that would be tailored to the actual specific circumstances of any prospective use of chemical weapons.  Pundits and politicians can and should engage in debates over whether a U.S. military response to Assad’s brutal employment of his chemical weapons arsenal in August 2013 was appropriate and warranted, but we should be clear that military retaliation was not expressly threatened by the President in his “red line” August 20, 2012 press conference.

Second, while avoiding military strikes, President Obama’s response did impose heavy costs on the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.  Just as President Obama’s use of the term red line itself was an impromptu reply to a reporter’s question, so too the ultimate U.S. policy response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013 grew out of an off-handed comment made by Secretary of State Kerry at a press conference in London.  In a more than half-joking response to a reporter’s question about how Syria might avoid a U.S. military strike, Kerry said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”  From this quip, a joint US-Russia diplomatic initiative emerged that ultimately resulted in Assad surrendering more than 600 metric tons of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stocks to international inspectors for destruction.  Of course, subsequent chemical attacks have demonstrated that Assad either retained a small amount of residual capability or has since reproduced limited quantities of new stocks.  Nonetheless, as former Obama officials have argued, while this diplomatic effort did not eliminate the threat of Assad’s use of chemical weapons altogether, it did substantially reduce the scale and scope of this serious threat.

Third, enforcing the red line through military action was arguably never a unilateral decision for President Obama to make.  As a constitutional lawyer by education, President Obama felt strongly that any U.S. military action in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons required Congressional authorization.  However, both Congressional leaders and American public opinion at the time were strongly opposed to such action.  Moreover, the vote by the British Parliament against missile strikes in late August 2013 left the U.S. isolated globally and severely undermined any claims to international legality.  Nor have these legal concerns been limited to President Obama’s administration.  According to recent press reporting, current U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis argued forcefully (but ultimately unsuccessfully) that President Trump too should seek Congressional approval before launching the latest round of US missile strikes.

Fourth, although the two military strikes authorized by President Trump are intended to serve as a deterrent, they do not yet constitute a clear red line against any and all future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.  The Assad regime has been pursuing a constant campaign aimed at testing the limits of U.S. resolve that has only expanded since President Trump took office.  Human rights organizations have documented over 50 instances of Assad’s “widespread and systemic” uses of chemical weapons since the end of 2016.  While President Trump’s military strikes have twice usefully underscored the international norm against the use of these terrible weapons, it is obvious that not every violation by Assad will warrant a U.S. military response.

Finally, limited U.S. missile strikes will not alter the basic trajectory of the civil war.   Indeed all indications are that this latest strike was carefully restricted to chemical weapons facilities, avoided attacks on targets that would threaten Assad’s hold on power or significantly degrade Syrian conventional military capabilities, and minimized the risks of broader confrontation with Russia or Iran who serve as Assad’s principal backers.

Rather than blindly accepting the conventional wisdom and myths associated with President Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red lines” in Syria, U.S. policymakers would be well-served by delving more deeply into the actual facts of the case in order to better appreciate the limits of what U.S. declarations or “one-off” missile strikes are likely to achieve in Syria.

Dr. Christopher J. Bolan is a Professor of Middle East Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.  He is a retired U.S. Army colonel who has served on the national security staffs of both Vice President Gore and Cheney.  He tweets on national security issues @DrChrisBolan.

The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.

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