The American response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was a political and moral failure. Ethics and morality are fundamentally based on religious principles. This applies equally to individuals, nations and international systems. We use the term “civilized world” to denote those same human demarcations that use ethics and morality in their decision-making, and those who do not are by default “uncivilized.” Contemporary American culture is bombarded with messages promoting a hazy relativism that is embarrassed by such terms, let alone starker terms like “good” and “evil.” American foreign policy has been equally embarrassed by stark realism that emphasizes only calculated interests or weak liberalism overly obsessed with multilateralism. It is the most unique aspect of American foreign policy that it has always attempted to combine realistic goals with liberal values. This tension created here from the founding of the Republic until today continues to bedevil the nation as it struggles to create a new grand strategy. However, regardless of partisanship, one cannot ignore the dictates of history. The United States was founded on an anti-relativistic vision of absolute natural law where clear markers of good, evil, freedom, and tyranny are severely defined. It is in this broad context that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons must be viewed. There must be a base premise that is absolute: the use of weapons of mass destruction upon innocent civilians is an act of pure evil. The Barack Obama administration’s failure to act upon its own named “red line” was not only a failure of credible American foreign policy but also a violation of natural law that governs civilization. The failure to act signaled that there would be no punishment for the use of weapons of mass destruction and created the vacuum to prolong the Syrian civil war by inviting greater involvement from Russia. It was the darkest hour of American foreign policy during the Obama presidency.
This essay focuses on the American response to the Syrian regime of Bashir Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Chemical weapons are a separate horror and are part of the classification of weapons commonly referred to as weapons of mass destruction. In this grouping are nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological, and now cyber weapons. The world focuses most of its attention on nuclear, especially the use of a nuclear bomb. Syria was pursuing the nuclear option until that option was decisively ended by the Israeli Air Force. Sometimes referred to as the poor man’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction), chemical weapons are the easiest alternative to nuclear weapons. They are also one of the oldest forms of WMD, chronicled in antiquity in the wars between Athens and Sparta. Chemical weapons had been banned by various western international agreements in 1675, 1874, 1899, 1907, and 1925. They received their greatest attention during and after World War I, responsible for 1.3 million casualties of the most horrific nature—the horror of which was so great that no western power used them against another western power during World War II. They would be used by Benito Mussolini against Ethiopia, by the Nazis in their concentration camps, by Japan against other Asian (especially Chinese) troops, and in the late 20th century by Iraq against Iran and the Kurds. It should be well noted that there is good evidence that the Soviet Union—keeping in mind that Russia is the major backer of the Assad regime—used chemical weapons against its own citizens in 1989 in Georgia and during its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. In 1993, many nations adopted the Chemical Weapons Convention, with Syria dubiously joining in 2013.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, and to be clear, had the United States made a proactive decision to assertively engage with the anti-Assad forces, the enormous casualties and use of chemical weapons would not have happened. No nation has successfully challenged American use or threat of use of hard power. However, the Obama administration made the decision, as it had with the Green Revolution in Iran, and the Arab Spring, in general, to let the vacuum grow. Before the war, the United States intelligence community assessed that Syria had chemical weapons, specifically mustard gas, blister agents, and VX. In July 2012, Syria confirmed ownership of chemical weapons. Obama drew his famous “red line” on August 20 of that same year, declaring “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Diplomatic “red lines” come from the story of the Roman who faced off the Seleucid Empire, which was threatening the Roman protectorate of Egypt in 168 BCE. The old consul’s mission was to force the king to return to Syria. After making the Roman demand and being mocked, the Roman responded by drawing a circle in the sand and saying that when the Seleucid king stepped across the line, he had better be marching toward Syria and not Egypt. The king retreated, and the red line was born; history comes full circle in the strangest ways.
By December 6, 2012, the red line was unilaterally shifted in favor of the Assad dictatorship by removing the injunction on the transportation of chemical weapons, as intelligence indicated had already occurred. This is where the red line stood until reports surfaced in January 2013 that the Syrians had already used chemical weapons (specifically Agent 15) against their own population in the city of Homs on December 23, 2012. On March 19, 2013, 26 people were killed in chemical attacks against two Syrian cities. Six days later President Obama stated that this attack was a “game changer.” In the summer it was estimated that more than 1,000 people were killed by chemical attacks. It was only until the end of August that President Obama announced his intention to ask the Congress for an Authorization of Military Force to respond to the attacks with military force, minus ground combat operations. At this moment, history was at the crossroads: it is clear that the Obama administration believed that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons and that this use required an American (unilateral if necessary) military response. On the other hand, rather than utilizing clear constitutional powers as commander-in-chief, the president handed responsibility over to Congress knowing that his Democratic base was opposed to any military action and Republicans would be unhappy with the limitations. Further, many in Congress openly questioned the need to go through Congress at all. It is beyond this article to speculate on the intentions of the administration, but it is clear that had the Obama administration ordered the American military into action, there would have been no hesitation and thousands of lives saved. No action was taken, and the red line, as Senator John McCain suggested, had been written in disappearing ink.
In September and October 2013, the UN and OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) ordered Syria to destroy its chemical weapons, and with the “help” of Russia, the international community declared victory in this disposal. It is noteworthy that the Assad regime would use chemical weapons on numerous occasions from 2015 through today, including the use of chlorine gas and sarin. The international deal not only gave the Assad regime breathing room internationally, but also served the twin evil purposes of laying out a red carpet for greater Russian intervention and protection from the condemnation for the tens of thousands killed by conventional weapons under the cynical observation that at least those people did not die at the hands of chemical WMD.
Ultimately, the Obama administration engaged in a policy of appeasement. This was not out of character, as it happened in all the major policy decisions regarding Iran, North Korea, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Libya, Russia, and China. It was more blatant over Syria and will provide future historians with a case study in practical and moral failure. The unwillingness to respond to the chemical attacks was coupled with the Obama administration’s choice to not seriously support the moderate resistance movement in Syria. This led to the rise of the Islamic State group and vacated America’s position in Iraq which allowed the Iranians in.
This context is necessary before anyone can assess the American response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria. However, there are three responses to play: tactical, operational, and strategic. The media and most in the political class focus on the tactical and operational. In line with this limited thinking, the options are manifold: the use of air strikes (manned, unmanned, cruise missiles) to take out the regime’s ability to store, transport, and use chemical weapons. Syrian air defense was less than it is now and a concerted air campaign on a unilateral American timetable would have crippled much of Assad’s ability to continue the use of WMD. A tactical decision such as this would have been far better than any of the responses by the Obama administration. At the operational level, the United States could have added to this the destruction of command and control actors, a psyop to not only undercut the obvious illegitimacy of the regime but to warn those ordered to use chemical weapons that they will be held personally accountable. Special Forces could be used to bolster all of these efforts to gain battlespace advantage. However, neither of these options matter unless the strategic picture is developed. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime should have been the final scene, not the opening act. This action should have led the Obama administration to make the decision that the solution to the problem was the removal of the Assad regime from power. In effect, American strategic response was the exact opposite of history. The United States should have openly supported the anti-Assad Syrian and Kurdish forces to remove the Ba’athists from power while using its presence in Iraq to forestall any Iranian and Russian adventurism. The American military would have had to establish no-fly zones and safe zones within the region and proactively crushed any attempt by Islamic extremist like ISIS and Al-Nusra in exploiting the chaos. Many analysts and scholars engage on this topic in either a vacuum or by over-compartmentalization. The solution to chemical weapons use was and is never the chemicals themselves. It is the people who have used them and will continue to do so, through this means or any other to civilians. It has always been a problem of the regime and the type of fascist tyranny the Ba’athists represent, or the type of Bolshevik tyranny to which the Islamic extremists aspire. Any attempt to focus purely on the tactical or operational level is focusing on the symptom and not the disease.
The establishment of a “red line” to act as a clear marker for American foreign policy was done, once done, all American credibility hung in the balance. This “red line” response to the use of chemical weapons necessitated not only a tactical and operational hard power response but also a geostrategic imperative to remove the regime that used chemical weapons in the first place. The American response was muted and resulted in a gross act of appeasement towards a war-criminal regime.