President Donald Trump’s decision to mount a punitive missile strike against a Syrian air base last Thursday had its antecedent in the infamous 2012 warning, from former president Barack Obama to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Obama’s failure to follow through on this threat when the Assad regime crossed that line in August 2013, killing more than 1,400 civilians in a sarin gas attack near Damascus, has continued to haunt America’s involvement in the Syrian tragedy. The subsequent U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal did not prevent the horror of April 4, when the U.S. says Assad’s forces mounted a new sarin attack on civilians that killed some more than 70 people. The failure of the chemical-weapons deal is a tale of Syrian deception, Russian duplicity and American dithering.
That agreement went a long way toward achieving its goal, namely through the removal from Syria of 1,300 metric tons of weapons-grade chemicals—including ingredients for the nerve agents sarin and VX—as well as the destruction of chemical munitions, labs, and mixing equipment. Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the deal as a major victory in the battle to rid the world of especially horrible weapons of mass destruction that even the worst combatants of World War II had refrained from using on the battlefield. But for all its achievements, the agreement and its implementation mechanism were deeply flawed, and its collapse was announced with a big bang when 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles hit their targets at the Shayrat air base in Syria’s Homs governorate, from which last week’s sarin attack is believed to have been launched.