.
T

here is something particularly terrifying about chemical weapons over other tools of death and destruction. The deaths being particularly gruesome as the basic functions of life shut down at the hands of an unseen attacker. It is dehumanizing and indiscriminate, and particularly abhorrent on the battlefield—indeed it is a war crime—but especially so against civilian populations. It is for this reason that the use of sarin nerve agent and other chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria provoked such an international response.

Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World | Joby Warrick | Doubleday | February 2021.

Mr. Joby Warrick of The Washington Post describes in vivid detail the story of this international response, the identification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, and offers a macro-level view of the civil war in his latest book Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.

The tragedy covered by Mr. Warrick is that even in the successful removal and destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, very little changed for the Syrians themselves. Washington and Geneva may have won a tactical victory—denying the regime the ability to use particularly egregious weapons and preventing the weapons from falling into the hands of the Islamic State or others (a very real fear at the time)—but it did nothing to change the strategic situation. Indeed, Assad is very much still in power, a situation that is unlikely to change soon, if at all.

Exposing & Destroying Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Mr. Warrick is an accomplished writer and reporter, and that is certainly on display in Red Line. Using the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons as a hook, he seeks to weave together a book about the conflict that captures just how complex of a foreign policy challenge Syria was and remains. This panoramic view is Red Line’s strength: from the on the ground perspective of those affected by Assad’s chemical weapons, to the international inspectors and diplomats seeking to dismantle Syria’s program, to those tasked with disposing of those weapons, Mr. Warrick covers nearly the totality of the chemical weapons challenge. But beyond that, he also explores the White House’s conflict over how to respond to the attacks, and how it struggled to manage the Syria challenge.

The book’s opening, in which a Syrian scientist volunteers to spy for the United States, is a riveting story and one hopes that Mr. Warrick—provided the information is available—explores this story at length. Spying for nearly 20 years, the unidentified chief scientist provided invaluable insights into Syria’s chemical weapons program, even providing a sample at one point, which would later be used to match the chemical “fingerprint” of the sarin nerve agent used in 2013 and 2017. The agent’s undoing came about as the result of his business dealings and bribery charges. On detention by Syrian authorities, he confessed to spying for the CIA, something which his interrogators, who were investigating corruption, knew nothing about.

The story jumps from the battlefields of Syria to the White House Situation Room, and the workshops of Aberdeen Proving Ground as inspectors seek to identify the weapons and their origin, diplomats aim to remove the weapons, and scientists try to find a way to quickly and safely dispose of Assad’s arsenal. The heroes of Mr. Warrick’s story are those closest to the ground—Åke Sellström, a Swedish academic and chemical weapons inspector who led the United Nations team investigating the use of sarin; Mr. Timothy Blades and his team of chemical weapons experts who developed, on short notice, a solution to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons; Sigrid Kaag, who headed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations joint mission to destroy the weapons; and Houssam Alnahhas, a Syrian doctor who worked to educate fellow Syrians on how to handle chemical weapons exposure.

President Obama & the Red Line

The Obama White House did itself no favors regarding Syria with its 2011 statement to the United Nations that Assad must go and the later unenforced “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.

In the case of the former, President Obama threw down a gauntlet that raised the hopes and expectations of Syria’s opposition on the ground. He was not alone in doing so: “the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union had each used those words, with slight variation”, shortly after the uprising began, as Mr. Warrick writes. Such words led Syrians on the ground to assume that the United States and the international community would back them in their efforts to overthrow Assad and that the endgame was a post-Assad Syria. Whatever the impetus for the statements, the result is the same—an expectation that Washington would work to see the downfall of Bashar al-Assad.

While the United States had no appetite for another Middle East conflict, the expectation was that with sufficient outside pressure and, crucially, without direct U.S. involvement (though as Mr. Warrick writes the Central Intelligence Agency did have a program to train and arm select Syrian fighters), the Syrian dictator would fall. In the words of Brett McGurk, “the assumption was that he wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure—the diplomatic isolation, the military pressure, the economic pressure—and eventually he’d have to negotiate himself out of power.” He added, “but it was a total misreading…short of an invasion, he wasn’t going anywhere.”

As for the eponymous “red line”, an off-hand response from President Obama to a reporter’s question landed the White House in its policy quandary:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, 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. That would change my equation.”

Rather than walk the statement back, or redefine it, the White House later doubled-down as described by the Washington Post. A “red line” on chemical weapons was established for better or worse. Ultimately, it was for the worse. Assad’s regime launched multiple chemical attacks against civilians and the United States failed to act. As Mr. Warrick recounts, the White House sought Congressional approval for acting, approval which was not forthcoming. While the motivations for avoiding outright and full entry into the Syria conflict were, perhaps, sensible, failing to act or failing to use elements of American power to enforce the President’s redline dramatically undercut the authority and credibility of the United States.

Here, it is clear that Assad’s power politics of survival outplayed Washington’s caution. Chemical weapons were never going to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria. A weapon of terror, to be sure, but one that if the wind changes direction will harm the attacker just as much as the target. It was and is indiscriminate, but the true utility was as a tool of negotiation. With Russia acting as an arbiter for the accord, Assad was able to buy time for the regime to survive and secure Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.

The Margarita Machine

That Mr. Timothy Blades, an Army civilian and chemical weapons expert, and his team were able to craft a solution (their “Margarita Machine”) to destroy the weapons on paper, build it, test it, and deploy it in such a short amount of time, and that it worked, is a testament to what the military and government can do when it is sufficiently motivated and resourced. One marvels at the speed and efficacy of his team’s effort from Maryland through to the Cape Ray and ultimately to completing its mission, destroying some 3,500 tons of chemical weapons.

In some ways, the completion is almost anti-climactic. Mr. Warrick’s description of these outstanding professionals leaves the reader sure that the mission will be a success even before the chemical weapons arrive on-board the vessel. Their herculean efforts are unquestionably impressive, yet the drama of the Cape Ray pales in comparison to the drama and twists and turns of the situation on the ground and at the macro-level. It is here that the attempts to weave the narrative together don’t gel as fully as one suspects Mr. Warrick hopes, but this is not his shortcoming or fault.

There is something mechanical in the story of the disposal itself (and the fact that it is, literally, a mechanical solution) that doesn’t rise to the level of the debates between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, or the fights within the United Nations where Ambassador Samantha Powers sought to convince the debating society to act against Assad. Ensuring welds are suitable for rough seas or that checklists are finalized is interesting from a program management perspective, but against the strategic level conflicts, it loses a bit of its punch. Processing chemicals is interesting, for sure, but lacks the power of the stories of the victims of Assad’s attacks or the efforts of the inspectors to uncover evidence of his crimes.

“We Didn’t Change Their Lives”

Assad’s weapons program had little military utility during the civil war. It existed to deter Israel and others but was ultimately used solely to terrorize the population, drive them into the open, and allow Assad’s forces to kill them more easily. As Mr. Warrick writes, “to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches… [was] a different order of savagery.”

The fear that the Islamic State or other extremists could acquire these weapons either by theft, purchase, or conquest was very real and was a motivating factor for securing these weapons. The Islamic State was concerning enough as it was, but the specter of the group’s acquisition, development, and use of chemical weapons was certainly a “one-percent” threat, to borrow the phrase from former Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Warrick’s exceptional book Black Flags is well worth a read, and he covers the group briefly in Red Line, exploring an attempt by the group to manufacture its weapons.

As Mr. Warrick notes, the entry of inspectors, the removal of upwards of 95% of Syria’s chemical weapons, and the destruction of its production capabilities are unprecedented and certainly worth recognition as a success. The fact that it occurred in the middle of an ongoing civil war makes it all the more impressive.

With the change of administrations, President Trump launched two missile strikes against Syrian targets in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons, seeking to deter Assad from future attacks. While the president may have Tweeted “Mission Accomplished”, the reality on the ground was far less certain. In the words of President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, “Did we succeed in deterring Assad? Ultimately, we did not.” While the sarin nerve agent and others may have been removed, Damascus still had stockpiles of chlorine with which to terrify its population. With the entry of Russia into the conflict, the survival of Assad was all but assured.

In the end, at a strategic level, the situation did not change. “Obama destroyed vastly more chemical weapons through diplomacy than Trump did with missiles. But ultimately neither president succeeded in changing Assad’s behavior or shortening Syria’s war,” Mr. Warrick writes. With the aggressive intervention of Russia on behalf of Assad, the regime is almost certain to survive. The suffering on the ground has not changed, and America’s involvement yielded very little if anything. Over 500,000 civilians have been killed, only a few thousand of whom were killed by chemical weapons. The death toll is simply staggering and unlikely to ebb soon. Sigrid Kaag captured it well, saying, “I hope the people of Syria can forgive us… We didn’t change their lives”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria

March 20, 2021

Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World | Joby Warrick | Doubleday | February 2021.

T

here is something particularly terrifying about chemical weapons over other tools of death and destruction. The deaths being particularly gruesome as the basic functions of life shut down at the hands of an unseen attacker. It is dehumanizing and indiscriminate, and particularly abhorrent on the battlefield—indeed it is a war crime—but especially so against civilian populations. It is for this reason that the use of sarin nerve agent and other chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria provoked such an international response.

Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World | Joby Warrick | Doubleday | February 2021.

Mr. Joby Warrick of The Washington Post describes in vivid detail the story of this international response, the identification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, and offers a macro-level view of the civil war in his latest book Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.

The tragedy covered by Mr. Warrick is that even in the successful removal and destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, very little changed for the Syrians themselves. Washington and Geneva may have won a tactical victory—denying the regime the ability to use particularly egregious weapons and preventing the weapons from falling into the hands of the Islamic State or others (a very real fear at the time)—but it did nothing to change the strategic situation. Indeed, Assad is very much still in power, a situation that is unlikely to change soon, if at all.

Exposing & Destroying Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Mr. Warrick is an accomplished writer and reporter, and that is certainly on display in Red Line. Using the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons as a hook, he seeks to weave together a book about the conflict that captures just how complex of a foreign policy challenge Syria was and remains. This panoramic view is Red Line’s strength: from the on the ground perspective of those affected by Assad’s chemical weapons, to the international inspectors and diplomats seeking to dismantle Syria’s program, to those tasked with disposing of those weapons, Mr. Warrick covers nearly the totality of the chemical weapons challenge. But beyond that, he also explores the White House’s conflict over how to respond to the attacks, and how it struggled to manage the Syria challenge.

The book’s opening, in which a Syrian scientist volunteers to spy for the United States, is a riveting story and one hopes that Mr. Warrick—provided the information is available—explores this story at length. Spying for nearly 20 years, the unidentified chief scientist provided invaluable insights into Syria’s chemical weapons program, even providing a sample at one point, which would later be used to match the chemical “fingerprint” of the sarin nerve agent used in 2013 and 2017. The agent’s undoing came about as the result of his business dealings and bribery charges. On detention by Syrian authorities, he confessed to spying for the CIA, something which his interrogators, who were investigating corruption, knew nothing about.

The story jumps from the battlefields of Syria to the White House Situation Room, and the workshops of Aberdeen Proving Ground as inspectors seek to identify the weapons and their origin, diplomats aim to remove the weapons, and scientists try to find a way to quickly and safely dispose of Assad’s arsenal. The heroes of Mr. Warrick’s story are those closest to the ground—Åke Sellström, a Swedish academic and chemical weapons inspector who led the United Nations team investigating the use of sarin; Mr. Timothy Blades and his team of chemical weapons experts who developed, on short notice, a solution to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons; Sigrid Kaag, who headed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations joint mission to destroy the weapons; and Houssam Alnahhas, a Syrian doctor who worked to educate fellow Syrians on how to handle chemical weapons exposure.

President Obama & the Red Line

The Obama White House did itself no favors regarding Syria with its 2011 statement to the United Nations that Assad must go and the later unenforced “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.

In the case of the former, President Obama threw down a gauntlet that raised the hopes and expectations of Syria’s opposition on the ground. He was not alone in doing so: “the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union had each used those words, with slight variation”, shortly after the uprising began, as Mr. Warrick writes. Such words led Syrians on the ground to assume that the United States and the international community would back them in their efforts to overthrow Assad and that the endgame was a post-Assad Syria. Whatever the impetus for the statements, the result is the same—an expectation that Washington would work to see the downfall of Bashar al-Assad.

While the United States had no appetite for another Middle East conflict, the expectation was that with sufficient outside pressure and, crucially, without direct U.S. involvement (though as Mr. Warrick writes the Central Intelligence Agency did have a program to train and arm select Syrian fighters), the Syrian dictator would fall. In the words of Brett McGurk, “the assumption was that he wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure—the diplomatic isolation, the military pressure, the economic pressure—and eventually he’d have to negotiate himself out of power.” He added, “but it was a total misreading…short of an invasion, he wasn’t going anywhere.”

As for the eponymous “red line”, an off-hand response from President Obama to a reporter’s question landed the White House in its policy quandary:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, 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. That would change my equation.”

Rather than walk the statement back, or redefine it, the White House later doubled-down as described by the Washington Post. A “red line” on chemical weapons was established for better or worse. Ultimately, it was for the worse. Assad’s regime launched multiple chemical attacks against civilians and the United States failed to act. As Mr. Warrick recounts, the White House sought Congressional approval for acting, approval which was not forthcoming. While the motivations for avoiding outright and full entry into the Syria conflict were, perhaps, sensible, failing to act or failing to use elements of American power to enforce the President’s redline dramatically undercut the authority and credibility of the United States.

Here, it is clear that Assad’s power politics of survival outplayed Washington’s caution. Chemical weapons were never going to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria. A weapon of terror, to be sure, but one that if the wind changes direction will harm the attacker just as much as the target. It was and is indiscriminate, but the true utility was as a tool of negotiation. With Russia acting as an arbiter for the accord, Assad was able to buy time for the regime to survive and secure Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.

The Margarita Machine

That Mr. Timothy Blades, an Army civilian and chemical weapons expert, and his team were able to craft a solution (their “Margarita Machine”) to destroy the weapons on paper, build it, test it, and deploy it in such a short amount of time, and that it worked, is a testament to what the military and government can do when it is sufficiently motivated and resourced. One marvels at the speed and efficacy of his team’s effort from Maryland through to the Cape Ray and ultimately to completing its mission, destroying some 3,500 tons of chemical weapons.

In some ways, the completion is almost anti-climactic. Mr. Warrick’s description of these outstanding professionals leaves the reader sure that the mission will be a success even before the chemical weapons arrive on-board the vessel. Their herculean efforts are unquestionably impressive, yet the drama of the Cape Ray pales in comparison to the drama and twists and turns of the situation on the ground and at the macro-level. It is here that the attempts to weave the narrative together don’t gel as fully as one suspects Mr. Warrick hopes, but this is not his shortcoming or fault.

There is something mechanical in the story of the disposal itself (and the fact that it is, literally, a mechanical solution) that doesn’t rise to the level of the debates between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, or the fights within the United Nations where Ambassador Samantha Powers sought to convince the debating society to act against Assad. Ensuring welds are suitable for rough seas or that checklists are finalized is interesting from a program management perspective, but against the strategic level conflicts, it loses a bit of its punch. Processing chemicals is interesting, for sure, but lacks the power of the stories of the victims of Assad’s attacks or the efforts of the inspectors to uncover evidence of his crimes.

“We Didn’t Change Their Lives”

Assad’s weapons program had little military utility during the civil war. It existed to deter Israel and others but was ultimately used solely to terrorize the population, drive them into the open, and allow Assad’s forces to kill them more easily. As Mr. Warrick writes, “to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches… [was] a different order of savagery.”

The fear that the Islamic State or other extremists could acquire these weapons either by theft, purchase, or conquest was very real and was a motivating factor for securing these weapons. The Islamic State was concerning enough as it was, but the specter of the group’s acquisition, development, and use of chemical weapons was certainly a “one-percent” threat, to borrow the phrase from former Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Warrick’s exceptional book Black Flags is well worth a read, and he covers the group briefly in Red Line, exploring an attempt by the group to manufacture its weapons.

As Mr. Warrick notes, the entry of inspectors, the removal of upwards of 95% of Syria’s chemical weapons, and the destruction of its production capabilities are unprecedented and certainly worth recognition as a success. The fact that it occurred in the middle of an ongoing civil war makes it all the more impressive.

With the change of administrations, President Trump launched two missile strikes against Syrian targets in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons, seeking to deter Assad from future attacks. While the president may have Tweeted “Mission Accomplished”, the reality on the ground was far less certain. In the words of President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, “Did we succeed in deterring Assad? Ultimately, we did not.” While the sarin nerve agent and others may have been removed, Damascus still had stockpiles of chlorine with which to terrify its population. With the entry of Russia into the conflict, the survival of Assad was all but assured.

In the end, at a strategic level, the situation did not change. “Obama destroyed vastly more chemical weapons through diplomacy than Trump did with missiles. But ultimately neither president succeeded in changing Assad’s behavior or shortening Syria’s war,” Mr. Warrick writes. With the aggressive intervention of Russia on behalf of Assad, the regime is almost certain to survive. The suffering on the ground has not changed, and America’s involvement yielded very little if anything. Over 500,000 civilians have been killed, only a few thousand of whom were killed by chemical weapons. The death toll is simply staggering and unlikely to ebb soon. Sigrid Kaag captured it well, saying, “I hope the people of Syria can forgive us… We didn’t change their lives”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.