FPI Bulletin: Three Years Later, Assad’s Chemical Threat Remains

August 30, 2016

A new report from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has found traces of nerve agents in facilities that Syria never disclosed as being part of its chemical weapons program. These findings, the report says, “indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities” on the part of Assad, despite a 2013 plan from the United States and Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal and production facilities.

In truth, Assad never fully complied with the 2013 agreement. News that the Syrian regime had secreted away a part of its chemical arsenal emerged in early 2015.  However, the U.N.-OPCW report also notes that the regime has used sulfur mustard and chlorine on the battlefield.  These substances are both banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention that Assad signed.  But these findings too are nothing new. The OPCW had recorded chlorine weapons use in Syria as early as September 2014.  By June 2015, the Syrian chemical threat had escalated to the point that the Wall Street Journal reported, “U.S. intelligence agencies believe there is a strong possibility the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on a large scale as part of a last-ditch effort to protect key Syrian government strongholds.”

Looking back on the events leading up the 2013 agreement, President Obama recently told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that “I’m very proud of this moment.”  He should not be. The U.N.-OPCW report demonstrates clearly that the 2013 agreement failed to fully address the threat posed by Assad’s chemical weapons, and has instead weakened America’s standing in the world.

Assad Attacks, the Administration Responds

On August 21, 2013, the forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack against a Damascus suburb and killed more than 1,400 people.  This incident, following several smaller-scale attacks with sarin earlier that year, was a flagrant violation of the “red line” that President Obama had issued one year prior during a press conference, when he said “there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

The Assad regime’s chemical attack on August 21, 2013, appeared to precipitate a major U.S. response. The president called his national security cabinet together for a meeting on the evening of August 30, and an attack against the Assad was expected as soon as the following day.  However, after growing unease in Congress, a failed endorsement vote in the U.K. parliament, and a 45-minute conversation with his chief of staff and intervention skeptic Neil McDonough, President Obama announced that he would seek congressional authorization for a military strike.

The president wanted an escape from following through on his prior commitment, and he found it. He knew that Congress was unlikely to authorize military action against Syria, especially when the administration declared that it would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” However, Assad still needed to be held accountable for the murder of 1,400 people in a mass use of chemical weapons.  The U.S.-Russia plan announced on September 14, 2013, to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal not only appeared to serve that purpose, but also had the benefit for the Obama administration of peacefully removing and eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles without becoming involved in the broader Syrian conflict.

The “Red Line” and American Credibility

At issue in the episode was nothing less than America’s international credibility—that when the United States says that it will do something in the world, it has the capability and will do it.  This solemn pledge not only assures our allies that the United States will come to their defense in the event of attack, but also deters aggressors from launching one.  America’s global system of alliances has prevented a major international conflict for seven decades.  It is not at all hyperbole to say that America’s credibility is the foundation of world peace.

President Obama, however, does not see things that way.  Goldberg reports that “Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam.” Goldberg notes that the president had even felt pressured into the surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan in defense of this concept, and he was not going to allow himself to be similarly pressured into a new major conflict.

But while Mr. Obama may dismiss the importance of American credibility now, he did not at the time.  During his August 31, 2013, address to the nation, the president said: “This attack…presents a serious danger to our national security.  It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.  It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.  It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”

The president continued: “Make no mistake—this has implications beyond chemical warfare.  If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?” Mr. Obama added, “We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.  Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning.”

The president made this case again during his September 10, 2013, address to the nation: “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory…The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it.”

Mr. Obama warned, “If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.  As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them.”  Finally, the president issued a call to action, noting that “for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security.  This has meant doing more than forging international agreements—it has meant enforcing them.”

In his remarks three years ago, the president was not making a defense of abstract concepts with empty meanings; he was defending the very basis of the U.S.-led international order.  It is no coincidence then that after he refused to enforce his “red line,” Russia annexed Crimea and China accelerated its militarization of islands in the South China Sea.  The president was correct on September 10 when he said “The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”


Following an extensive series of interviews with the President and senior administration officials, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote: “I have come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied…the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook.”

However, the ongoing use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime since Assad ostensibly handed over his arsenal demonstrates that the president’s diplomatic victory in 2013 was a Pyrrhic one.  As many as half a million Syrians have died in the war, and 13.5 million are now refugees.  The Syrian war, which three years ago was a comparatively simple conflict between the regime and the mainstream with a minimal Islamist presence, is now a multi-sided proxy war, with regime forces, the mainstream opposition, and Islamist groups—all with major international supporters—fighting each other.

One thing is for certain—American and international security will continue to be threatened so long as the conflict in Syria goes on.  The next president must learn the lessons of the Obama administration’s failures, and fulfill his demand that Assad step aside.  Until the regime is removed from power, Islamist groups are defeated, and the Syrian people can govern themselves, the conflict will continue to create a new class of Islamist radicals, Russia will military and diplomatically run roughshod over the United States, and America’s international credibility will continue to be diminished.

This surely is not the world President Obama believed he was creating three years ago, but it is what his decision led to.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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