Why Assad crossed Obama’s red line

He calculated, correctly, that he could commit war crimes with impunity.

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr via Wikimedia Commons.
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr via Wikimedia Commons.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

“Ayman” was a skilled Syrian scientist producing chemical weapons at Institute 3000, a facility within the deceptively named Scientific Studies and Research Center near Damascus.

For 13 years, he also was a CIA asset, supporting two wives and possessing an impressive stereo and music collection, featuring new-age electronica. Late in 2001, he was summoned to the offices of the Mukhabarat, dictator Bashar Assad’s intelligence service. His interrogator informed him that his secret activities were secret no longer. In truth, however, the government knew only that he had been taking kickbacks from foreign companies providing supplies to his laboratory—a relatively minor transgression in a country rife with corruption. Nothing was known about his American connection. But, in a moment of panic, he spilled the beans. Not long after, he would stand before a firing squad.

This tale is told in Jody Warrick’s new book: “Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.”

A fine reporter and a talented storyteller, Warrick details the history of the Syrian civil war that began 10 years ago this month and resulted in at least 500,000 killed, more than half the Syrian population of 17 million displaced at home or abroad, a flood of refugees into Europe and a generation of uneducated Syrian children ripe for radicalization by Islamists who will tell them: The nations of the West don’t care about you.

None of that is in dispute. What is? Whether “America’s race to destroy” Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons was a success or failure. Before I tell you what Warrick thinks and what I think, let me sketch out the background.

Starting in 2010, the misnamed Arab Spring sparked upheavals across much of the Middle East. In Syria, these took the form of peaceful protests. Assad responded ruthlessly.

In 2011, President Obama declared that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But no strategy was devised to bring about that result, and the president later dismissed Syria’s non-Islamist opposition as “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists.”

That characterization was disputed by, among others, Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the Free Syria Foreign Mission, who noted that “approximately half of the Free Syrian Army are defectors from the Assad regime military,” and that the commander of the Free Syrian Army was a former military officer.

In 2012, after it became clear that Assad was using chemical weapons, including military-grade sarin, a nerve agent 26 times deadlier than cyanide, to mass-murder civilians in rebel-held areas, Obama drew a “red line.” He warned that if Assad continued committing such crimes, serious consequences would follow.

Assad flagrantly crossed Obama’s red line. Serious consequences did not follow. But with polls showing little enthusiasm for military action, Obama began looking for a way out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s key supporter (along with Iran’s rulers), was only too eager to offer one. In 2013, he brokered an agreement under which the Syrian dictator promised to surrender his chemical weapons.

In 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would boast that “we struck a deal where we got 100% of the chemical weapons out.” But that was untrue. As Warrick notes, “Syria, despite its assurances, had failed to give up all its nerve agents.”

Nor did Assad stop using chemical weapons to mass murder non-combatant men, women and children. On the contrary, over the years that followed, he deployed chlorine bombs close to 300 times. And, in 2017, he again used sarin, which indicates he had retained stores of it or continued to produce it clandestinely.

A brief digression: The administration’s misunderstanding and/or misrepresentation of its diplomatic prowess would soon be repeated.

In 2015, Obama and Kerry concluded a second agreement, this one with Iran’s rulers. They claimed it prevented the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. That, too, was untrue. The theocrats agreed only to slow-walk a nuclear-weapons program whose existence they denied. And they didn’t wait long before violating the deal’s prohibitions.

As for Assad’s violations of the U.S.-Russia deal, those must have been obvious to the Obama administration early on. One clue: He didn’t reveal the chemical weapons research taking place at Institute 3000. And the CIA was fully aware of that work, thanks to Ayman.

Eventually, more than 70 missiles would reduce Institute 3000 to rubble. But that strike was carried out in 2018 on orders from President Trump, who also eliminated Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Republic military commander who had orchestrated widespread carnage in Syria utilizing Iranian special forces, Hezbollah troops from Lebanon, and Shi’ite militias composed of Afghans and Pakistanis.

Assad remains in power. The International Criminal Court never investigated him for what Warrick calls “one of the century’s most insidious war crimes.” Putin—warned by Obama that in Syria he would find only a “quagmire”—achieved his objectives and is now a major player in the Middle East. (And is there any doubt that he has used chemical weapons against dissidents at home and abroad?)

Iran’s rulers continue to pursue their imperialist ambitions in Syria; also, in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and beyond, while the Biden administration attempts to revive the flawed deal Obama concluded with them.

Warrick writes: “The disarming of Syria, imperfect as it was, had been one of the young century’s great triumphs of multilateralism.” Call me a cynic, but the facts and evidence he reveals in his deeply researched and highly readable book do not lead me to that conclusion.

Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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