Nothing symbolises the inability of the United States to pressure the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and limit the atrocities in the civil war more than the story of President Obama’s “red line” against the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in 2013.
In mid-2012, intelligence reports reached us that the Syrian government was moving its chemical weapons. Washington was worried that the Syrian army — which was facing defeat in northern and eastern Syria — might use these illegal weapons. There was also worry that extremist groups like the Nusra Front might capture some of them.
Journalist Chuck Todd from NBC channel asked Obama at the White House on 20 August 2012 if he was considering using the US military to take control of Syrian chemical weapons.
Obama answered that he had not ordered military intervention in Syria but that the US was carefully monitoring the chemical weapons amid concern that they might “fall into the wrong hands” – which, in Washington language, meant Islamic extremists.
Obama then said that if the weapons were moved or used it would constitute a “red line” that would change his calculations.
I was shocked that Obama had mentioned a red line because I knew he didn’t want to use military force in Syria and to maintain our credibility none of us at the State Department had ever drawn a red line in Syria.
Later, months after Obama’s statement, in the spring of 2013, credible reports of chemical weapons attacks at Khan Assil near Aleppo and Saraqeb in Idlib province arrived.
In Washington, I attended meetings with the National Security Council whose members said small-scale attacks with only a few casualties did not cross the red line. No one knew how many casualties were necessary to cross the line.
US experts also warned that blood samples from victims were liable to interference in opposition hands. They insisted that we needed an international investigation with direct access to sites where there had been using of chemical weapons and also direct access to victims.
The United States and other countries raised this in the Security Council in early 2013 but for months the Russian-backed Syrian government refused.
In April, US intelligence concluded that the Syrian government had, in fact, used chemical weapons — sarin gas in particular. This intelligence report did not result in military action but it did lead Obama finally to change his policy on Syria.
On 13 June 2013, Ben Rhodes, an official at the National Security Council very close to Obama, issued a statement that we would increase support to General Selim Idriss and the Syrian Military Council in response to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
It was the beginning of a lethal assistance programme to the Free Syrian Army. (The lethal assistance programme was unsuccessful, but that is another story.)
More aid to the Free Syrian Army didn’t deter al-Assad. When I got to my office on Wednesday, 21 August 2013, my computer’s inbox was full of stories from Syrian opposition sources about the killing of more than a thousand people from an apparent chemical attack in the Ghouta of Rif Damascus.
The videos of dozens of bodies in white shrouds, many children, were terrible and unlike anything we’d seen from Aleppo or Idlib provinces.
This time the White House could not escape the red line.