Inside the White House During the Syrian 'Red Line' Crisis

We in the Obama administration stepped up to the brink of military action against Assad. And then, suddenly, we stepped back.

Then-President Barack Obama photographed with top advisers, discussing possible responses to a chemical attack in Syria in August 2013. (White House / Reuters)

In the course of a presidency, a U.S. president says millions of words in public. You never know which of them end up cementing a certain impression. For Barack Obama, one of those phrases would be “red line.”

In August 2012, Obama was asked about what could lead him to use military force in Syria. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” he said, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” We had received reports about a month earlier that the regime was preparing to use chemical weapons against the opposition, or transfer them to the terrorist organization Hezbollah. We issued private warnings to Iran, Russia, and the Syrian government; Obama made clear publicly to Assad that the world was watching, and that Assad would be held accountable by the international community should he use those weapons.

At first the warnings seemed to work. Weeks and months went by with  no sign of chemical attacks in Syria. But then, towards the end of 2012, we received the first reports of small-scale chemical weapons use. The U.S. intelligence community was resistant to snap judgments, particularly after the experience of inaccurate statements made about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. So it took a period of months before the intelligence community formally determined that the Assad regime had in fact used chemical weapons in April 2013. The question then became what we were going to do about it.

Our initial response was unsatisfying: Obama decided to publicize a decision to provide military support to the Syrian opposition. Almost by default, the responsibility for announcing this fell to me. By then, I had been a deputy national security adviser for nearly four years, and was known to be someone who was particularly close to Obama. Even though I had misgivings about our Syria policy, I wanted to do something about the catastrophe in Syria, just as I had advocated intervention in Libya. I had also internalized a certain ethos: If there was an issue that no one wanted to talk about publicly, I would do it. I thought it was part of my job, as Obama deserved to have someone willing to defend him. I sensed, though, that it would cost me, allowing me to be blamed for decisions I didn’t make but that others didn’t want to defend.

And defend it I did: on conference calls, in televised briefings, and in long conversations with reporters. I fought with lawyers to get clearance to say that Obama had decided to provide “direct military support” to the Syrian opposition, as we were in the impossible position of not being able to discuss details about a key element of our policy. Legally, we couldn’t say what the support was; all I could say were things like: “This is going to be different—in both scope and scale—in terms of what we are providing to the opposition.” I was giving partial answers about an incremental response and felt as though whatever stockpile of credibility I had built up over four years was being drawn down.

Yet I was also wrestling with my own creeping suspicion that Obama was right in his reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria. Maybe we couldn’t do much to direct events inside the Middle East; maybe U.S. military intervention in Syria would only make things worse.

On August 21, 2013, news broke of a catastrophic chemical-weapons attack in Syria; within a matter of days, the intelligence community had a “high confidence assessment” that a sarin gas attack had killed more than a thousand people in a suburb of Damascus, and that the Assad regime was responsible. There were harrowing accounts of how scores of people had been killed by clouds of gas on the outskirts of Damascus.

A couple of days later, I joined a National Security Council meeting where officials advised Obama, one after another, to order a military strike. This included the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marty Dempsey. Up to this point, he had argued that Syria was a slippery slope where there was little chance of success. Now he said that something needed to be done even if we didn’t know what would happen after we took action.

Obama asked about the UN investigators who were going to the scene of the attack to obtain samples. Could something be done to get them out? The tone of the whole meeting suggested an imminent strike. The adviser who urged the most caution against military action was Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who raised questions about the legal basis for it and what would come next. What if we bombed Syria and Assad responded by using more of his chemical weapons? Would we put in ground troops to secure those stockpiles? At the end of the meeting, Obama said he hadn’t yet made a decision but wanted military options prepared.

I walked outside and convened a conference call with the lead communicators for the government on national security. Pacing back and forth, I started to plan a public campaign to ramp up to a military intervention. The intelligence community would have to make its assessment public. DoD needed to prepare for an announcement of strikes. It felt energizing, as though we were finally going to do something to shape events in Syria.

Two days later, on a Monday morning as we sat outside the Oval Office waiting for the morning briefing with Obama, the director of national intelligence—Jim Clapper—looked agitated. A Vietnam veteran, former Air Force lieutenant general, and longtime intelligence professional, Clapper was an avuncular older guy with a bald head. He spoke in clipped sentences and had an easy rapport with Obama, who liked to needle him for always dropping paper clips on the rug in the Oval Office. Clapper never put spin on the ball; he told you what he knew and what he didn’t know. I respected him as much as anyone in government.

When we entered the Oval Office, Clapper gave his usual summary of key intelligence. He indicated that all signs pointed to Assad’s ordering a catastrophic sarin attack, but then he paused. The case, he said, was not yet a “slam dunk.” The assessment would firm up over time, as samples were gathered and information analyzed, but Clapper’s choice of words was striking. “Slam dunk” was the exact phrase that George Tenet, then director of the CIA, had used to assure George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Clapper seemed to be signaling that he wasn’t going to put the intelligence community in the position of building another case for another war in the Middle East that could go wrong.

His words hung in the air.

“Jim,” Obama said, “no one asked you if it was a slam dunk.”

I felt the burden on Obama. He had to respond to this awful event in Syria while bearing the additional weight of the war in Iraq—which caused his own intelligence community to be cautious, his military to be wary of a slippery slope, his closest allies to distrust U.S.-led military adventures in the Middle East, the press to be more skeptical of presidential statements, the public to oppose U.S. wars overseas, and Congress to see matters of war and peace as political issues to be exploited.

Later in the day, Clapper said that the intelligence community would not prepare an assessment for public release. Instead, he suggested they share all of their information and judgments with me and I could write a U.S. government assessment, which they would review for accuracy and sign-off. It took me a moment to understand what he was suggesting. These were usually technical documents produced by teams of people in the intelligence agencies.

For the next two days, I sat at my desk poring over the information and turning it into a short, stark, and simple analysis. I watched publicly available videos of people lying disoriented on the floors of hospitals, looked at pictures of dead children. I felt waves of anxiety, anticipating how I might be hauled before Congress if things went terribly wrong after a military intervention. I was responsible for writing the public document that would justify the United States’s going to war in Syria.

Obama remained focused on the United Nations inspection team that was on the ground in Syria. That afternoon, he called Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, and urged him to pull them out. Ban refused, saying that the team had to finish their work. “I cannot overstate the importance of not remaining in Syria for a lengthy time,” Obama said. Ban replied that it could take a few days. Obama pressed again, saying they should be out by the following night. To this day, I wonder if Obama would have launched a strike early that week if the UN team hadn’t been in the way.

Obama’s next call was to Angela Merkel. There was no foreign leader he admired more. Like him, she was a pragmatist, driven by facts, dedicated to international order, deliberate in her decision-making. I’d seen them sit together, sometimes for hours, with notepads in front of them, designing strategies that could keep the global economy crawling forward, or hold Afghanistan together. Now I sat in the Oval Office listening to Obama ask for her support for military action. Even if Germany didn’t participate, the United Kingdom and France had indicated that they would. But her public support would show that the United States and Europe were united, and could help bring along the rest of the European Union. Merkel argued that the UN team should have the time to prepare and submit its report, at which point we should pursue a Security Council resolution authorizing action. If the Russians blocked us, then at least we would have tried. This would take several weeks. Obama knew a delay of that length would tie his hands, especially  because there wasn’t much public support for war in the United States. As the fresh horror of Assad’s attack faded, the opposition to a U.S. strike would build. With any additional time, Assad could also put innocent civilians around potential targets as human shields.

I sat on the couch watching him make this case, waiting for Merkel’s words in response. I don’t want you to get into a situation where you are left on a limb, she said. Obama cradled the phone against his ear while the rest of us listened on speaker. She said she wanted to use the time to build agreement among the European countries. Then, she said, we have a situation where you are not exposed to vague allegations. This is what I say as a friend.

He hung up the phone. It was the first time I saw him look uneasy about acting in Syria. He asked those of us in the room for our opinion on the timing for military action. I plunged into the case I’d been making in meetings—that only action by us would change the emerging dynamic, that the biggest concern in the United States and Europe was that we were going to have another Iraq War. Only by acting in a limited way, with air strikes that were over after a period of days, could we demonstrate that we weren’t beginning an all-out war. He listened, but I knew he was skeptical that we could contain military action once we’d begun.

Just as things were stalling in Europe, congressional opposition to strikes was building at home. On Wednesday, a week after the chemical weapons attack, a large group of Republican members of Congress wrote Obama a letter that threatened him bluntly: “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”

This was followed by a letter from the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. “Even as the United States grapples with the alarming scale of the human suffering,” it read, “we are immediately confronted with contemplating the potential scenarios our response might trigger or accelerate. These considerations include the Assad regime potentially losing command and control of its stock of chemical weapons or terrorist organizations—especially those tied to al-Qaeda—gaining greater control of and maintaining territory.”

Boehner also focused on the need for congressional authorization: “It is essential you address on what basis any use of force would be legally justified and how the justification comports with the exclusive authority of congressional authorization under Article I of the Constitution.”

After deriding Obama’s response to Syria as weak, Republicans were now making the same warnings about action that we had used to publicly defend our inaction in the past. In doing so, they were signaling that Obama would be held accountable if these scenarios were realized, while seeking impossible guarantees that they wouldn’t be. More ominously, a message was being delivered: Acting without going to Congress would be unconstitutional.

Our lawyers also had concerns. There was no firm international legal basis for bombing Syria—no argument of self-defense, which justified our actions against al-Qaeda; no UN resolution such as we had had in Libya. Nor was there any domestic legal basis beyond the assertion that the president had the inherent power to take military action that did not constitute a “war” under the Constitution, which the Republicans were disputing. Some argued that the Republicans could even try to impeach Obama if he acted without congressional authorization—hardly a wild thought, given their posture toward Obama.

On Thursday afternoon, McDonough convened the national-security team for a call with congressional leaders. One after the other, nearly all expressed some degree of support for strikes but demanded that Obama seek authorization. Some were quoting a candidate questionnaire that Obama had filled out for The Boston Globe in 2007, in which he had said, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”—an argument that had also been mounted against Obama after we intervened in Libya.

I sat listening to all this, exhausted and getting angrier and angrier. For eight years, Republicans had defended Bush’s ability to do whatever he pleased as commander in chief; now they were suddenly devoted to constitutional limits on the commander in chief? I’d spent two days reading detailed descriptions of people being gassed to death, watching video of children with vacant eyes lying on the floor of a makeshift hospital. Faced with this harsh reality, Congress was focused on creating a political trap.

During the meeting, we got word that the British Parliament had voted 285–272 against joining U.S.-led strikes on Syria after a debate filled with demands that the United Kingdom not follow the United States down the path to war as Tony Blair had followed George W. Bush. A shell-shocked David Cameron called Obama to apologize, explaining that he could no longer offer his support. The hangover from the Iraq War had left us staggering toward military intervention with next to no international support, and a Congress demanding that we go through the same divisive process of seeking authorization that had just failed in London.

On Friday morning, I sat at my desk rereading the assessment I’d written. I had checked every word with the deputy director of national intelligence, Robert Cardillo, who stepped up to help us out—getting information declassified, editing the document, and giving us maps to release. Shortly after “the United States Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons” was released, Kerry delivered his final case against Assad at the State Department. “My friends,” he thundered, “it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”

We had a final National Security Council meeting that morning. Kerry suggested that we wait another week to bring other countries into a coalition. I argued that we had to act as soon as possible—time was not our friend, and our military action was likely to change the public dynamic. Obama, who seemed increasingly focused on the factors aligning against us, pressed for the domestic and international legal basis that we could cite for taking action. There was no good answer, other than to point back to when NATO had acted without an international mandate in Kosovo. Still, throughout the day, the drama of Kerry’s speech and the horrific details in the public assessment seemed to tilt things back in the direction of action. It felt as if all of the week’s setbacks and preemptive criticisms were part of an unfolding drama that would inevitably conclude in cruise missiles hitting Syria.

Later that afternoon, I was in a meeting in McDonough’s office discussing whether Obama had to address the nation in prime time as soon as the bombing began. McDonough, the sole voice against military action, got a note that Obama wanted to see him; he left and never returned. An hour later, I was back in the Situation Room when I got a note asking me to come to the Oval Office.

I walked in to find Obama alone and looking more relaxed than he had all week. Gone was the grave look that had been frozen on his face. “I’ve got a big idea,” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “you’re the big idea guy.” Sometimes, the more intense the moment, the more casual I would be with Obama in my comments.

A handful of aides trickled in. Obama laid out his thinking: He had decided to seek congressional authorization for strikes on Syria. At some point, he said, a president alone couldn’t keep the United States on a perpetual war footing, moving from one Middle Eastern conflict to the next. In the decade since 9/11, we’d gone to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Now there was a demand that we go into Syria; next it would be Iran. “It is too easy for a president to go to war,” he said. “That quote from me in 2007—I agree with that guy. That’s who I am. And sometimes the least obvious thing to do is the right thing.” If he attacked Syria without congressional authorization, the Republicans would come after him, and it would be impossible to sustain any military engagement in Syria. If we got congressional authorization for an attack on Syria, we’d have more credibility—legally, politically, and internationally. If we couldn’t, we shouldn’t act.

I sat slouched over on the couch across from him. I couldn’t argue with anything he was saying, even though everything I’d been doing for the last few days—and everything I’d been arguing for the last two years—had been building up to a cruise missile strike on Syria the following day. It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was—the person who looked at Syria and felt that we had to do something, who had spent two years searching for hope amid the chaos engulfing the Arab world and the political dysfunction at home.

It was clear that Obama’s mind was made up. Still, as always, he went around the room. One after the other, people voiced agreement with his direction. The only exception was Susan Rice, who had recently become national-security adviser. “We needed to hold Assad accountable,” she said. “Congress is never going to give you this authority,” she said—the only person to offer that prediction. In the years to come, when nearly everyone involved in this drama decided to absolve themselves by saying that Obama should have bombed Assad without going to Congress, Susan never did.

When it was my turn, I told Obama I agreed with him. The downside of getting congressional authorization was, ironically, that we’d then have even more ownership over Syria; we’d be raising expectations around the world about what we were prepared to do and what we could achieve. But then I conceded that we had to, at some point, show that we meant what we said about not being on a permanent war footing. “We keep saying that,” I said, “and I guess we have to show that we mean what we say.” Speaking from my experience defending national security actions that we couldn’t talk about—from drone strikes to supporting the Syrian opposition—I said I thought it was time to make decisions in the open.

Then I gave voice to the building frustrations I’d been feeling, the sense of being trapped in systems that don’t work. “In this Syria debate,” I said, “we’ve seen a convergence of two dysfunctions in our foreign policy—Congress and the international community. They both press for action but want to avoid any share of the responsibility.” All week, I had been thinking the answer to that problem was to go ahead and do something; now I saw Obama’s reasoning for why that wouldn’t work. “At some point, we have to address that dysfunction head-on.”

The only caveat was the insistence by Rice and Obama’s lawyers that we reserve the right to take action even if Congress didn’t approve strikes—a point that made sense, in terms of preserving flexibility, but which undercut the moral, ethical, and legal clarity of the stance Obama was taking. Obama called a couple of foreign leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Your decision was right, Netanyahu said, and history will be kinder than public opinion.

Over the next few days, we pivoted to seeking congressional support. In a meeting in the Cabinet Room between Obama and congressional leaders, Boehner pledged his support but said he would do nothing to help Obama get votes from within the Republican caucus. Senator Mitch McConnell, who would end up criticizing Obama for not launching a strike, refused to offer his support. “Real profiles in courage,” Obama said to us afterward.

Foreign policy luminaries endorsed authorization; Hillary Clinton announced her support; AIPAC lobbied in support of our position; so did the Saudi government—but none of it mattered. No wave of support materialized in Congress or in public polls. One after another, members of Congress in both parties—including people who had demanded that we take action in Syria—announced that they would vote against authorizing it.

On Thursday, we flew to Russia, where the G20 was being held at a lavish Tsarist palace on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg. As we wandered the grounds, updates continued to pour in from Washington. A resolution authorizing the use of force had limped out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but looked increasingly uncertain; the picture in the House was worse. McDonough was quarterbacking a frantic communications and legislative operation despite a creeping sense of inevitable failure in Congress.

The next morning, I was dropped off at the villa where Obama was staying, which looked like a newly built and neatly appointed condominium that you might find alongside a golf course in Arizona. Obama was sitting at a table, wearing a gray T-shirt and black sweatpants. The television was playing the opening night game of the NFL season, a reminder of the time difference and just how far we were from home. The game was on mute, and I started to update him on how support was slipping away, how even hawks on Syria—people like Marco Rubio—were tying themselves in knots to justify opposing authorization. “Maybe they just want to oppose you,” I said. “Or maybe no one wants to be on the record in support of another war.” I left unspoken the fact that the war could take a bad turn—like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

“Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,” Obama said. The comment was jarring. Obama had written about how we should have intervened in Rwanda, and people like me had been deeply influenced by that inaction. But he also frequently pointed out that the people urging intervention in Syria had been silent when millions of people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “There’s no way there would have been any appetite for that in Congress.”

“You could have done things short of war,” I said.

“Like what?”

“Like jamming the radio signals they were using to incite people.”

He waved his hand at me dismissively. “That’s wishful thinking. You can’t stop people from killing each other like that.” He let the thought hang in the air. “I’m just saying, maybe there’s never a time when the American people are going to support this kind of thing. In Libya, everything went right—we saved thousands of lives, we didn’t have a single casualty, and we took out a dictator who killed hundreds of Americans. And at home, it was a negative.”

I saw what he had been doing—testing Congress, testing public opinion, to see what the real maneuvering room was for his office when it came to intervention in Syria. It was the same thing he’d done in Situation Room meetings on Syria and in his mind, testing whether anything we did could make things better there or whether it would turn out to be like Afghanistan and Iraq, if not worse. It wasn’t just politics he was wrestling with. It was something more fundamental about America, our willingness to take on another war, a war whose primary justification would be humanitarian, a war likely to end badly. “People always say never again,” he said. “But they never want to do anything.”

On the flight home, Obama mentioned that he’d had a private conversation with Putin on the margins of the summit. For years, Obama had proposed that the United States and Russia work together to address the threat from Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile; for years, Russia had resisted. This time, Obama again suggested working together to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Putin agreed and suggested that John Kerry follow up with his Russian counterpart.

After we landed in Washington, Obama talked about the different ways in which the debate could play out. “The thing is,” he said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism—everyone will see they have no votes.” I realized then that he was comfortable with either outcome. If we won authorization, he’d be in a strong position to act in Syria. If we didn’t, then we would potentially end the cycle of American wars of regime change in the Middle East.

Kerry worked quickly to turn Putin’s overture into an agreement that could be implemented in a country—Syria—that had never even acknowledged having chemical weapons. Four days after we got back to Washington, the Syrian government announced they would give them up. Five days later, on September 10, Obama addressed the nation and announced that we would pursue this diplomatic opportunity. The congressional vote never took place. Thousands of tons of chemical weapons would be removed from Syria and destroyed, far more than could have been destroyed through military action. The war would continue. Barack Obama would continue to keep the United States out of it.

This article has been adapted from Ben Rhodes’s forthcoming book, The World as It Is.