The Syrian government has launched another horrible chemical weapons attack against its citizens, in violation of international laws and norms. This attack underscores one point of agreement among all observers: that however complex and perhaps unwise any given course of action in the conflict may be, it is am absolute top priority to bring the conflict to an end as soon as possible. The President has said that this attack in Syria has changed his thinking on Assad, and America's UN ambassador Nikki Haley suggested that the United States may take unilateral action in Syria if international steps are not taken.
Given the nature of the attack, it has also led to renewed discussion about President Obama's "red line," the assertion that the use of chemical weapons is a Rubicon that cannot be uncrossed. Obama has been derided from all sides after he supposedly did not take military action in Syria in response to President Assad's use of chemical weapons in 2013. Some have called the decision his greatest failure. Trump even got on the bandwagon this week, stating in a press release, "President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a 'red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing."
But as far as I can see, the common narrative around the red line is all wrong. Albeit unorthodox, Obama's actions in 2013 were not the contradictory failure that they are so often portrayed to be. The complications of this week notwithstanding, it might be appropriate to call them a success.
Working other countries, America removed and destroyed Syria's chemical weapons. No shots were fired; no one died.
First of all, it's important for us to remember where the "red line" even came from. The way it is so often portrayed, one would think Obama gave a prime-time address from the East Room and said, "If Assad uses chemical weapons, I will invade Syria and remove him from power."
Of course, this is not the case. What Obama actually said was much less committal, and much more aligned with the actions he ended up taking. At a 2012 White House press briefing, Obama was asked by Chuck Todd about the possibility of military action in Syria. Included in his rather long answer was this paragraph, from where the red line took off:
"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."
Later in the same briefing, Obama reiterated this point, saying: "We have put together a range of contingency plans. 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."
As we can see, there was no commitment to military action, and no promise to remove Assad from power. Obama simply promised "changed calculations." And that is indeed what happened. After Assad used chemical weapons in August of 2013, Obama sought Congressional approval to take military action against the Syrian government. Derek Chollet, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, recalls in his book The Long Game that the Pentagon had created several action plans of strikes to be taken against Assad. America even engaged a coalition with France in order to carry out the attack.
Those strikes never occurred. This is because of a fortuitous diplomatic turn of events that was, frankly, lucky. At a press conference on September 9, amidst Congressional debate over the Syria AUMF, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked whether there was anything Assad could do to avoid US military action. Off the cuff, Kerry responded: "He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to international community in the next week (shrugs), turn it over, all of it , all of it without delay and allow for a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
But he was about to do it, and it could be done. Immediately after his press conference, Kerry was called by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who proposed that Kerry's conjecture should be implemented, that an international coalition should collect and destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Five days later, Russia and the US came to an agreement to implement to plan. Working with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, America, the UK, and other countries removed and destroyed Syria's chemical weapons. No shots were fired; no one died.
Of course, this diplomatic solution was not perfect. The chemical attacks of this week suggest that Syria's stockpile was not 100% destroyed in the deal, as have other signals since the negotiation took place. However, these flaws do not mean that the action was a failure. Those who still label it as such are wrong for two reasons.
First, no where in the whole process did Obama recant on his word, as is the most common criticism. It is crucial to remember that Obama did not promise military action. He promised, in essence, a different policy paradigm had Assad used chemical weapons. And that is what he delivered. Not only did he "change his calculations," he produced a decently impressive outcome. Obama achieved the same goal as was the intention of his planned military operation — responding to the use of chemical weapons to prevent their further usage — without the financial and human cost of military engagement.
And second, although the prevention of future chemical attacks was not perfect, it was better than we could hope for with military action. Kerry himself promised that the planned military strikes would be "unbelievably small." With the logistics of locating all of Syria's weapons sites, dealing with Russian resistance, and executing the task in the midst of a brutal civil war, it can't be realistically contented that military actions would have completely destroyed Syria's chemical weapons capacity. Every action is imperfect. To some definite degree, Obama's diplomatic solution was a success. It certainly was not a failure.
Photo credit Chuck Kennedy, public domain