Obama’s Red-Line Reset
The president has been running away from the clear standard he set, in part because of Russia.

Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, December, 2012. (AP Photo/Abdullah Al-Yasin)


The Obama administration has repeatedly warned Syria that using chemical weapons or transferring them to terrorist groups would cross a “red line” that would result in some emboldened change in U.S. policy. But following the U.S. intelligence community’s recent assessment that sarin gas has been used in Syria, the president merely called for a deeper investigation — an investigation that will require the unlikely cooperation of both Russia and Syria itself. One might say the red line has been reset.

On March 19, the Assad regime alleged that rebel forces had fired a rocket carrying a chemical agent into the village of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, killing 25 and wounding others. Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, said his government would send a letter to the U.N. Security Council “calling on it to handle its responsibilities and clarify a limit to these crimes of terrorism and those that support it inside Syrian Arab Republic.” Two days later, the government sent such a letter. The Syrian opposition denied it had used chemical weapons and claimed that the regime was responsible for the attack.

On March 21, Britain and France proposed that the Security Council send a letter to the secretary general asking for a “swift, thorough, and impartial” investigation that would pursue the Khan al-Assal incident and other suspected uses of chemical weapons. At the same time, however, unnamed U.S. officials were telling the press that their investigation showed that the Assad government had been using only riot-control gas in previous incidents, and that it was thus unlikely that actual chemical weapons had been used in the most recent attacks. “Something went down, but it was short of a chemical weapon,” a senior State Department official told CNN.

Probably in part because of the Obama administration’s conclusion, no Security Council letter was sent requesting a U.N. investigation. Britain and France (with Luxembourg, South Korea, and Japan) made their own requests in a March 25 letter, urging investigation of two other incidents as well — one on March 19 in Ataybah, in the vicinity of Damascus, and one in Homs on December 23.

On April 8, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that there was an investigative team located in Cyprus, quite near the Syrian coast, and that it could be ready to deploy to investigate claims of chemical-weapons use within 24 hours. “All we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government to determine whether any chemical weapons were used, in any location,” he said.

On April 11, Ban met with President Obama and called on world leaders to take a stronger leadership role in the Syrian conflict. “I have asked President Obama to demonstrate and exercise his stronger leadership in working together with key partners of the Security Council,” Ban said. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee, “We have not detected use of chemical weapons. . . . Obviously, if that line is crossed, then we’ve got a different situation.”

But on April 13, the Times of London reported that “forensic evidence of chemical-weapons use in Syria has been found for the first time in a soil sample smuggled out of the country in a secret British operation.” Later it was revealed that the U.S. intelligence community has confirmed these reports. This is powerful evidence — the strongest evidence we are likely to see, given the attitude Russia and Syria have taken toward suggestions of a deeper investigation.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned NATO ministers that while reports of chemical weapons in Syria must be carefully investigated to avoid a repetition of the “Iraqi scenario,” any investigation must be strictly limited. He accused Western nations of trying to “politicize the issue” by proposing a broadening of the investigation. Experts were supposed to be sent to Syria to study the possible use of chemical weapons in Aleppo, according to Lavrov; instead, they were demanding access to all facilities in Syria and the right to interview any Syrian citizen. “I believe that is too much,” he said.

Meanwhile, Syria has refused to let any teams in, and Assad’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, wrote to Ban Ki-moon to say that the Syrian government could not accept any inquiry that included claims against its own forces. Syria has dismissed the soil-sample evidence, with the information minister asserting that “the testing of Syrian soil, if not performed by an official and international organization and done without the consent of the Syrian government, has no political or legal value.” Syria is arguing that the only valid proof will be sampling by international authorities, with Syrian authorization, which the government refuses to give.

On April 25, the Obama administration responded to a request from Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, explaining in a letter that, like Syria, the White House refuses to give credence to the British-obtained soil samples and other evidence. “The chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions,” the administration wrote. The White House even echoed Russia’s citation of the “Iraqi scenario,” saying, “We have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient.”

Having failed to collect our own intelligence, having failed to push for a U.N. investigation or even join our allies’ demand for one, now, according to the letter, “we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria. That is why we are currently pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.” But “only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.” And Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people is no longer a “red line”; instead, the administration will “respond appropriately to any confirmed use of chemical weapons, consistent with our national interests.”

The “reset” of the U.S. relationship with Russia was supposed to result in greater cooperation between the two countries on a range of international issues. Unfortunately, the nature of that cooperation is not very encouraging. Russia has not supported the U.S. on matters of international security, including Iran and now Syria. The Russians appear to be testing the U.S. to determine whether they can manipulate U.S. policy, particularly in a case in which Obama has actually taken what appeared to be a firm stand. Not only Russia but other nations with an interest in testing U.S. resolve have gotten their data. The question of how the U.S. and the international community should respond to Syrian use of chemical weapons was answered by the Obama administration by relinquishing U.S. interests and the guise of leadership in order to accommodate Russian interests.   

But the “credible and corroborated facts” needed to confirm the use of chemical weapons to the president’s satisfaction are made unobtainable by Russian and Syrian opposition to a serious U.N. investigation. President Obama’s transnational, internationalist priorities have indeed forced him to reset his red line.

— Paula A. DeSutter was assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance from 2002 to 2009.