Obama’s Syria Red Line

By Bilal Y. Saab – Syria’s military has once again moved its chemical weapons. Last time this happened, worries that chemical attacks on rebels or the civilian population were imminent ended up being unfounded. This time, American and Israeli officials are saying that the movement is “a kind of action we’ve never seen before” and “suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation.” This prompted another round of vague warnings by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and that America would “take action,” a reiteration of remarks made three times over the past year by President Obama.

Obama’s red line on Syria is worth scrutinizing closely because it provides insights into the haphazard nature of the administration’s overall Syria policy. The curious logic and poor credibility of Obama’s threat are somewhat interrelated. Why has the United States drawn a red line here and not elsewhere?

Obama’s words could reflect a humanitarian concern and a moral responsibility to prevent the further loss of life in Syria. Yet the president has not reacted forcefully to the tens of thousands who have already perished without a single poison being used. Chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and if used effectively, could kill in the thousands. But so can fighter jets, helicopters, tanks and artillery—and they already have.

What if Assad never uses toxic assets throughout this conflict but continues to methodically bombard and kill on a daily basis? Or what if he uses small quantities of those weapons and ends up killing fewer people than his daily average, would the red line still apply? From a purely moral or humanitarian standpoint, Obama’s equation does not make sense. How could constant, lethal and inhumane conventional bombardments be considered fair game while one class of weapons, no matter how it is used, is unacceptable?

If the usage of chemical weapons is considered as grave and game changing from a U.S. standpoint, how does Obama rank the following scenarios, which are likely worse?

  • A civil war that massively spills over to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, igniting similar civil wars in one or two of those countries and threatening key U.S. allies.
  • A war between Syria and Turkey following repeated military skirmishes along the borders.
  • An Al-Qaeda movement that succeeds in establishing a solid base in Syria.

Surely these scenarios pose worse consequences than Assad using or moving chemical weapons.

Despite Obama’s repetition, his red line on Syria lacks credibility. There is no reason to doubt that this president means what he says, but the problem is that what he said was anything but clear. Assad might either misunderstand it or dismiss it.

Some would argue that Obama did not need to specifically mention that the United States would intervene militarily—such vagueness is good because it keeps his opponent guessing. They would add that it is unnecessary for Obama to corner himself by issuing a specific threat which he could be forced to execute. Surely Assad must understand what Obama is referring to when the latter says that he would “change his approach so far.” Presumably Assad learned after the debate on Iran sanctions that Obama doesn’t bluff.

In reality, ambiguity undermines credibility. It has been almost two years since the Syrian uprising began, and no one has been able to stop Assad from killing thousands of people and destabilizing his neighbors. Western tolerance of such a high death toll in Syria (currently pushing forty thousand) has probably made Assad think that he has a virtual green light to continue with the killing. So why would the use of chemical weapons change anything, Assad might wonder, especially if the Syrian leader uses them in small and possibly undetectable quantities? Assad might be thinking that Obama didn’t utter the words “military intervention” or “use of force” because he could not follow through on his threat.

Now that he is reelected, Obama will have more latitude in international affairs and fewer worries about the domestic political consequences of his foreign policies. But that does not mean that he will all of a sudden have fewer qualms about military intervention in Syria. Obama was and still is genuinely concerned that in a combustible region, an attack against Syria, no matter how surgical, would spiral out of control. This could cause a widespread conflagration that would involve Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. What would start as a limited military operation meant to stop the bloodshed, remove the dictator, and secure a large chemical arsenal could end up with severe unintended consequences: more people dying, a scattered chemical arsenal that ends up in terrorist hands and a heavily contaminated Syrian atmosphere. Syria is a chemical powder keg.

Yet even if Obama enhances the credibility of his threat and adds specificity to his red line, it is not clear that it will matter. The last thing Assad needs in his existential war against his people is NATO fighter jets flying over Damascus and bombing his palace. The Syrian army is already stretched too thin and Assad cannot afford to redirect some, if not all, of his military resources to combating a much more powerful U.S.-led NATO force.

But what if Assad finds himself facing the fall of Damascus? Given his uncompromising behavior so far in the conflict, it is possible that Assad will fight until the end and use whatever assets he has at his disposal, including chemical weapons, to prevent total defeat. Assad might prefer to deal a decisive blow to an imminent threat now and worry about confronting a Western intervention later. Assad is not powerless if he has to face a NATO onslaught, and he can rely on his Russian-supplied air defense systems as well as his extensive chemical arsenal, which the foreign ministry recently mentioned could be used against foreign invaders.

There may be nothing that Obama could say that would change Assad’s calculations or the course of the conflict in Syria. But we are not dealing with absolutes here. To deter Assad from escalating and using chemical weapons, Obama must not only issue a more credible and specific threat. He must also overhaul his approach to Syria. The current red line is insufficient because its foundation is a weak policy and a questionable presidential commitment to Syria. The deterrent threat should be proactive—not reactive as it is now—and center on denial rather than punishment.

A more active and coherent Syria policy, of which the red line is only one part, is desperately needed. It should start with a program to work with U.S. allies to vet, train, and arm the Syrian rebels. This is what the CIA is for, but the Turks and the Jordanians should be at the forefront of the effort given the close links they already have with the rebels. It is critical for the United States to have a friendly constituency in Syria, not only to secure Assad’s toxic assets but also to deal with a host of other contingencies the day after the dictator is gone. America has no friends in Syria. This must change, and fast.

This analysis first appeared in The National Interest on December 04, 2012 and is being re-posted here.