Lessons From the 'Red Line' Crisis

I was chief of staff at the State Department the last time a president considered punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. The complexities we faced then are worth considering as Trump contemplates what’s next in Syria.

Alex Brandon / AP

For many of us who were in the United States government in 2013, when the images of women and children writhing in pain in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta first brought the United States to the brink of airstrikes against the Syrian government, watching as 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired into a regime airbase in Homs was at once cathartic and not entirely satisfying.

I’m glad it happened. I’m supportive. But where do we go from here?

The aftermath of the strikes underscores what we knew in 2013 would be true even if Congress had acted quickly to give President Obama the authorization he’d asked for: No single military act could ever solve Syria. The brushback pitch of missile strikes may deter Assad from using chemical weapons again anytime soon, but the rapidity with which the airfield in Homs was reused to kill innocent people by conventional means was a real-time reminder of something the Obama administration both conceded and argued at the time: just how ephemeral the results of kinetic action can be.

None of this is surprising to those of us who wrestled with the same issues four years ago. At the time, I was chief of staff at the State Department, with a front row seat to deliberations on both policy—calibrating a response, considering its impact on military and diplomatic strategy—and practical matters, from consulting Congress to finding the right words to communicate the immediate horrors and to assure Americans we weren’t about to embark on another Iraq-style quagmire.

Regardless of one’s view of how we handled events at the time—when we seemed to be on the verge of a punitive strike before congressional opposition and a diplomatic opening instead lead the administration to negotiate a deal we hoped might rid Syria of chemical weapons—it’s useful now to consider the complexities of what happened then, since many of the same ones will face today’s decisionmakers. In some cases, the situation facing the Trump administration is even more complex.

First, then as now, there are no perfect options in Syria. Much can be debated about who was right and who was wrong, who was naive and who was prescient. But the passage of time only makes the Syria options worse and the decisions harder.

Second, if there’s going to be a sustained effort—whether that means finding the long-term, elusive political solution; better protecting civilians through humanitarian corridors presumably backed up by air protection; or engineering the departure of Assad—collaborating with allies is going to be necessary, but inherently uncertain. In 2013, we believed we firmly had the United Kingdom and France by our side when we were on the cusp of military action. When Prime Minister David Cameron suddenly and unexpectedly rushed to force a vote in Parliament, and was promptly defeated, we not only lost a key partner but also saw political leaders at home suddenly remembering Congress’s hasty 2002 acquiescence in what became an unwise march to military action in Iraq. Demands thereafter surged for the Obama administration to seek congressional approval for even limited airstrikes. Thursday’s actions have surely raised expectations around the world—not just those of the remaining, beleaguered Syrian opposition but also those of America’s Gulf partners, from the Saudis to the Emiratis, who will now want to see what comes next.

Third, despite the applause they’re now hearing from a diverse group of lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senator John McCain, the administration can’t count on formal congressional support. As someone who spent more than a decade on the Hill, I must acknowledge regretfully that Congress today doesn’t have the ability to act quickly on an event like the chemical attack we’ve witnessed in Idlib, let alone a bigger strategic issue as complex as Syria. We learned this the hard way. In 2013, voices that had long demanded military action against Assad, like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, didn’t bring with them any votes in favor of such action in the Senate. Reliably neoconservative voices like Senator Marco Rubio suddenly turned isolationist, unable to support a president of the opposite party. Others still felt the pounding hangover of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In arguing to a divided Congress both that we wouldn’t be entering another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and that airstrikes would hold Assad accountable, Kerry was trying to assure lawmakers that we would be doing neither too much nor too little. Many in Congress will now argue that an airstrike is a tactic not a strategy, and they’re right—but neither is demanding a long-term strategy an excuse not to quickly punish a dictator for violating a 100-year-old prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Regardless, if Trump now decides to ramp up airstrikes against Assad, he should be prepared to do so—as President Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo, and as President Obama did against ISIS—without authorization from Congress. Many in Congress will privately be grateful.

Fourth, the battlefield has become dramatically more complex since 2013. The targets of any expanded airstrikes—Assad’s airfields, top regime assets—are likely the same, but four years ago the Russians weren’t flying over Syria and Russian personnel weren't on the ground there. When Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2016, it underscored how these developments changed the stakes and heightened the potential for miscommunication or worse. Russia’s threat to close the hotline Russia and the U.S. use to prevent accidental collisions between their warplanes in Syria was a reminder that the Russians have leverage they didn’t have in 2013. At the same time, reports of ongoing communication between the Russians and Americans underscore that Russia can compartmentalize on issues where its interests are implicated. Despite all kinds of protestations about everything from Ukraine sanctions to the Magnitsky reports under President Obama, the Russians worked with us cooperatively on the Iranian nuclear issue and Afghanistan. Russia has its own reasons to want to see ISIS defeated.

Fifth, a real political solution in Syria is currently unimaginable—and no one has any illusions that a single evening’s round of missiles fired would change that. The strike against the Homs airfield made clear that Assad could not use chemical weapons with impunity. That in itself is valuable. Repeated strikes might degrade his ability to further terrorize Syrians. In the longer term, the threat or reality of what we just witnessed could also increase pressure on the Russians, Iranians, and other actors to invigorate diplomacy and see whether it leads somewhere constructive, but there’s no guarantee of that. There have always been scenarios one could envision where Russia and Iran and the Gulf states could all protect their interests in a post-Assad Syria that preserves some elements of the state, but for many reasons that’s never been the road they’ve chosen. Russia and Iran don’t necessarily respect Assad’s judgment and at various times have acknowledged he’s a burden, but there’s no reason to be overly hopeful that they will do anything but stubbornly back him. If we learned anything in 2013, it’s that when the threat or reality of force is on the table, the Russians at least engage in earnest diplomatically.

Sixth, persuading other countries—particularly in Europe—and the American people to consider any further military action is untenable without close collaboration with and validation from the intelligence community. People at home and overseas need to understand that Assad and Assad alone is responsible for the atrocity of the chemical-weapons attack on Idlib. In 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Kerry made prosecutorial, factual cases about what had happened. The same must happen now if the administration is considering more strikes. The current president has too often denigrated and alienated the intelligence community, and in so doing he has enabled other countries, like Russia, to try and undercut his own undeniable case for action. In 2013, as the U.S. and its allies deliberated, the Russians absurdly worked with the Syrian regime to cast surreal public doubt about who was responsible for the massacre in Ghouta. They're already doing the same about Idlib. This is a time when the public diplomacy role of the State Department can be particularly valuable.

Seventh, unless carefully explained and carefully calibrated, further military action in Syria risks creating the misperception of tacitly taking sides in longstanding sectarian Middle East divisions to which Americans are not a party. In 2013, America’s closest Gulf partners were willing to pay the cost for America’s potential military operation against the Assad regime, much as the Saudis picked up part of the tab for the first Gulf War. Eager to align themselves with the new administration, and having long hated Assad, they’re probably just as willing to do the same today. Trump has made it a mainstay of his foreign policy rhetoric that it’s time for other countries to share the costs of America’s global security blanket. He will have to decide now if this is a moment to make good on that promise, or whether—given complicated sectarian divisions between Tehran and Riyadh—it would be more trouble than it’s worth. Would relying on Gulf partners’ financial backing for airstrikes contribute to a perception that the United States is now a party to a sectarian fight, rather than that America’s only interest is in holding an international outlaw accountable for an atrocity that violates all the international norms of warfare? This challenge can be navigated, but it shouldn’t be denied, particularly amid an election season in Iran when the hardest of hardliners would love to depict America as being in a war against the Shia.

Eighth, if anything resembling sustained, long-term efforts against Assad are being contemplated, success requires extremely careful public language. For the first time, with new urgency, the Trump administration will come face to face with the reality of how much each word matters for a president. The world is still trying to discern meaning in the president’s statement Wednesday that the sarin attack “crossed a lot of lines” and “I now have a responsibility.” Thursday’s teleprompter-scripted three-minute announcement of the strikes wisely avoided new long-term pronouncements. But UN ambassador Nikki Haley raised confusion on Sunday when she told CNN that “regime change is something that we think is going to happen” in Syria. Much is misunderstood or oversimplified about what happened in 2013, but there’s no denying that the declaration of a red line, announcement of an intention to take military action, and then an ultimate decision as circumstances changed to choose a different course affected the perception of the last administration for the rest of its time in office. Having credibility that you will follow through when you pledge to do something is an important currency in foreign policy. It isn’t a reason to do dumb things that aren’t in America’s interest, but it matters more than some acknowledge.

Ninth, even having a shot at long-term success requires extremely careful strategic planning. It shouldn't be driven by news cycles. This is a time for Trump to hunker down with his national security team and settle on a position, taking as much time as he deems necessary. He should preserve his freedom of action until he is comfortable—rather than making freewheeling statements that box him in, as he seemed to from the Rose Garden on Wednesday or as members of his administration did on the Sunday shows afterward. In its first few months, the administration has at times made a habit of suddenly creating the perception of a dramatic new policy shift, without any follow-up action, leaving friends and critics confused—never more so than with then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s provocative briefing room declaration that “Iran is now on notice.” There’s no benefit to raising rhetorical stakes and expectations if there isn’t a long-term plan to meet them. On Syria, where the last administration was divided, and where Trump has for so long seemed deeply ambivalent or self-consciously conflicted (what made the “beautiful babies” of Idlib more sympathetic figures than the many child refugees he brands as future terrorists?), he should take the time to land on a long-term policy first and speak only then.

Tenth, if the administration is considering more than one night of strikes, then sustained military action is best taken with high-level bipartisan support. In 2013, Kerry and his counterparts in the Cabinet were reaching out and quietly briefing and consulting their predecessors. We knew that for a war-weary nation, even weeks of limited strikes—with no boots on the ground—would have been a hard sell, and we knew it would be important for America’s statespeople to feel invested in any decisions. Trump’s goal should be for every living former secretary of state and defense to say not just that he made a presidential choice, but that it was the beginning of a carefully considered, disciplined strategy. Careening wildly back and forth whacking his predecessors doesn’t help. Now that Trump is in the White House seeing the enormity of the difficult choices only presidents can make, he might sympathize with those who have sat behind the Resolute Desk. He might also appreciate that—even if you wish Obama had hit the Assad regime—because of the last resort, back-up diplomatic alternative that was chosen, today there are 1,300 tons of chemical weapons that are not in the hands of either Assad or ISIS in a country that no one really controls. However incomplete this deal ultimately proved, it did probably alleviate more human suffering than a single night of airstrikes. If the administration is going to be aiming hundreds more missiles at chosen targets, it is good to know that in all likelihood they are no longer storage sites for deadly weapons.

The Syrian Civil War is stubbornly resistant to solutions. Many good people have tried and come up short, and plenty of bad people have made it a hell of a lot worse. Now that the first military action at regime targets has happened, I hope that the lessons many of us learned—some of them the hard way—may be helpful to those who must now once again decide not just how best to respond to a dictator’s unspeakable atrocities, but how to marshal the best shot at a long term, winning strategy. We should all hope they succeed.