How Obama’s Syrian Chemical Weapons Deal Fell Apart

A tale of Syrian deception, Russian duplicity, and American dithering

U.S. President Barack Obama
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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.

There were many technical reasons for the deal’s failure, most having to do with the deception and subterfuge of the Syrian regime. But the main reason Assad did not fully implement the agreement was political. At Russia’s insistence, the deal did not allow for the use of force or the automatic imposition of sanctions even in the event of Syrian violations—depriving Obama of a credible threat of force against Assad.

It’s now clear that, in the absence of such a threat, Syria had no incentive to comply. From the moment the regime shed the first blood in what began as a peaceful uprising in 2011, there was a diabolical method in the madness of its retaliation. Assad embraced a doctrine of gradual violent escalation with deep roots in Syrian history, in a crude imitation of Caliph Mu’awiya, the brilliant founder of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750 AD) that ruled the Muslim community from Damascus for almost a century. Mu’awiya was a subtle Arab version of Machiavelli; Muslim tradition credits him with formulating the following method of dealing with potential troublemakers: “If I could use my money, I would not use my words; if I could use my words, I would not use my whip; if I could use my whip, I would not use my sword; but if I have to use my sword, I will.” But Assad, the obtuse, brutal lisping satrap of modern-day Damascus, saw only the whip and the sword in Mu’awiya’s rich quiver.

So in Assad’s Syria, initial machine-gunfire against civilian demonstrators gave way to tank shells. Then helicopter gunships began strafing rebels in rural areas, followed by fixed-wing fighter-bombers, to be complemented later by Scud ballistic missiles. Then the Syrian skies were owned almost exclusively by ugly Soviet-made helicopters spewing unguided barrel bombs, laden with shrapnel, to kill and maim mostly civilians. Finally, Assad unsheathed his ultimate terror sword: chemical weapons.

Still, after each escalation, Assad would pause briefly and gaze westward, waiting for the reaction of the Obama administration and the European powers. He took Obama’s measure early on, and realized that the American president, who was cognizant of the limits of his country’s power and who was very eager to withdraw from Iraq, would limit his reaction to eloquent statements of moral outrage and righteous indignation.

Obama issued his “red line” warning to Assad in the summer of 2012, not long after regime acknowledged for the first time that it possessed chemical weapons. That winter came the first reports alleging the Assad regime’s use of those weapons in Homs. In that incident, seven people were killed, and eyewitnesses described victims’ symptoms of breathing difficulties, nausea, and blurred vision. On January 15, 2013, Foreign Policy reported on a secret cable from the U.S. consul-general in Istanbul, Turkey, who claimed there was compelling evidence that the Syrian military had indeed used chemical weapons there. The following day a spokesman for the National Security Council played down the report. But by spring 2013, there were many reports of chemical weapons being used by the Syrian military, prompting Obama, members of congress, European diplomats, and then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to call for investigations.

On August 21, 2013, according to the U.S., the Syrian regime launched rockets laden with sarin against the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta suburbs near Damascus, killing some 1,400 civilians, including a large number of children. It was the deadliest chemical-weapons attack since another Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, gassed and killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988. Finally, the world could see on their television screens scores of women and children dying slowly of asphyxiation. This time there was no denying that Assad had crossed Obama’s red Rubicon, and no way to ignore it.

So the American president found himself threatening Assad with punitive military strikes. Even then, he dithered. Throughout Obama’s tenure at the White House, his eyes were on the prize he valued the most in the Middle East—reaching a nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. He reportedly abhorred military action against the Assad regime, despite its murderous rampages, because of his exaggerated fear that such action could anger Tehran and jeopardize the nuclear talks. This pathetic dilemma was succinctly expressed by Kerry’s claim that the U.S. should be allowed to conduct “unbelievably small” air strikes against the Assad regime.

When Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval to strike Syria, he likely already knew that Congress did not want to own the burden. Then “fate” intervened when Russia offered to broker a deal, thus safeguarding Assad’s political longevity and thwarting American and European public calls on Assad to step aside. Finally, the American Hamlet ended his long rendition of “to strike, or not to strike.” Jeffrey Goldberg narrated Obama’s redemption thus: “The moment Obama decided not to enforce his red line and bomb Syria, he broke with what he calls, derisively, ‘the Washington playbook.’ This was his liberation day.”

But if Obama was celebrating his liberation from Syria, many Syrians were howling their lamentations—the deal had left untouched a chemical that would prove a continuing source of torment for them. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was charged with overseeing the implementation of the agreement, had not considered chlorine gas to be part of the Syrian weapons program, because it is commonly used for legitimate civilian purposes. Beginning in April 2014, Assad’s forces charged through this loophole, launching a campaign using chlorine gas as a weapon of terror against civilians. As former ambassador Fred Hof, one of America’s premier experts on Syria, told me, after the 2013 agreement Assad “began with baby steps, putting chlorine canisters into barrel bombs.” In the last two years, the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a panel created by a UN resolution in August 2015, has documented a number of chlorine barrel-bomb attacks by Syrian air force helicopters throughout Syria. All the while Russia shielded the Assad regime against any punitive measures at the United Nations.

Assad graduated to sarin on April 4, 2017, Hof said. But it seems that U.S. officials knew for some time that Assad had squirreled away a secret reserve of sarin agents and was waiting for the right moment to use them. In his briefing to reporters following the cruise missile strike, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster revealed that U.S. military planners took appropriate measures “to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas ... so that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.” This astonishing revelation invites the question: If it was known that the Assad regime was in clear violation of UN Resolution 2118, which codified the 2013 deal, and of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws sarin, what explains the scandalous silence and the lack of active measures, diplomatic or military, to prevent Assad from using it as he did against Khan Shaykhun on April 4?

Russia’s breathtaking complicity in Assad’s crimes meanwhile continued after the attack, when officials tried to find extraordinary excuses to deny Assad’s responsibility. This is how Obama’s red line devolved, under Western eyes, into a lethal green light for Assad to continue to scar Syrian lands and Syrian bodies and souls. As former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told me, “The manner in which the Americans ignored subsequent and repeated Assad government use of chemical weapons in 2014 and 2015 further damaged American credibility.”

“If Trump keeps to limited deterrence of chemical-weapon use,” Ford continued, “he could begin to restore some American credibility.” And perhaps Assad will suspend his chemical attacks, but it seems certain he will eventually resume them, to convince the Syrian population that the world has abandoned them even as he continues to do the unspeakable to remain in power. One American missile salvo in the dark will not deter the Assad regime or relieve the agony of that ancient land. But since there is no political resolution on the immediate horizon, and since the Obama administration did not insist on a civilian protection annex to the 2013 chemical agreement, the United States should still endeavor to work with its allies to shield Syrian civilians from the chemical terror of their tormentor.