Book Review – The “Red Line” That Wasn’t

By Chris Quillen, Biodefense PhD Student

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CW) against his own people is the greatest challenge the Chemical Weapons Convention has ever faced. This breach of the taboo against CW use sparked numerous national and international investigations to determine the details of exactly what happened and who had done it. These investigations, in turn, were severely complicated by numerous factors. Investigators had to deal with (1) the dangers of operating during a complex civil war, (2) multiple belligerents using CWs on the battlefield (both the Syrian government and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS), and (3) the Syrian government’s repeated denials and counter-accusations of any CW use. Syria’s dubious position was backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the public debate and, most importantly, at the United Nations Security Council, which provided Assad significant protection from international sanction. The global opposition to Syria’s use of CWs was widespread, but was led by the United States primarily under Barack Obama and also Donald Trump. The debate about what happened in Syria—and especially about how the world reacted to it—will undoubtedly rage for years to come. Joby Warrick’s Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World is a useful addition to this debate, but the definitive book on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war remains to be written. 

A Washington Post reporter since 1996, Warrick offers a compelling, character-driven narrative with interesting new insights and impressive detail on key aspects of the story. His focus on individual actors, however, offers both strengths and weaknesses. Warrick should be commended for telling the compelling stories of (1) everyday Syrians risking their lives to get the evidence of Assad’s CW use to the world, (2) international inspectors from the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) overcoming amazing odds to gather the proof, and (3) American bureaucrats courageously and creatively destroying the part of Syria’s CW turned over by the Assad government. These individual stories are invaluable and offer useful guidance for similar efforts to document and destroy CW in the future. However, the focus on the individual often obscures the broader strategic context and limits the perspective of the book. At its best, this approach presents unique historical insights, but, at its worst, it runs the risk of allowing each individual perspective to overwhelm the big picture. As the saying goes, “Every person is the hero of their own story.” While many true heroes can be found in the pages of Warrick’s book, the temptation to put one’s own spin on history is evident and ultimately detracts from the larger message.

Warrick covers numerous sides to the story through his characters, but focuses primarily on the US angle, the most accessible to him. The life-threatening challenges inside of Syria are largely viewed through the eyes of refugees who later escaped the war in their homeland. ISIS’s efforts to develop and use sulfur mustard and the coalition efforts to destroy it are told through a largely unrepentant ISIS detainee who worked in the sulfur program.. The political battles at the UN are recounted from various diplomats and bureaucrats. 

The bulk of the book, however, addresses the US response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The title of the book makes this focus clear, but also reveals the two competing narratives of the story. The main title “Red Line” is taken from President Obama’s August 2012 statement in which he implied the US military would take action if Syria used chemical weapons: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime 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.” The fact that no such military action followed Syria’s repeated confirmed use of CWs remains one of the more controversial aspects of the Obama administration’s record. Eric Sterner has argued the lack of a response destroyed America’s credibility on the issue such that later explicit threats to use force after Assad continued to use CWs were ineffective. For his part, Obama acknowledges that his credibility was on the line after his previous statements, but defends his decision not to act as being in “America’s interest.” Warrick largely defends Obama’s decision citing the lack of Congressional and public support for US military action, but these justifications seem to come too late. The fact is Obama issued a red line and failed to follow through. As a result, the taboo against CW use was severely weakened. 

The second part of Warrick’s story is captured in the subtitle “America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.” While legitimate debate can be had about whether Syria’s chemical weapons constituted “the most dangerous arsenal in the world,” the successful effort to destroy the bulk of Assad’s chemical weapons is undoubtedly a victory to be celebrated and Warrick should be commended for his work in capturing this account. Warrick’s inside stories about the development of the hydrolysis systems that were used to break down Syria’s CWs and the subsequent destruction that took place at sea onboard the Cape Ray are fascinating tales that need to be told.         

In the final analysis, the juxtaposition of the failure of Obama to enforce his own “red line” and the success of the effort to destroy most of Syria’s CW carried out by his administration is striking. The credibility of US government statements, however, is not the real issue here. The failure of the taboo against CW use—and the failure of the international community to enforce that taboo in any meaningful way—is the real story and the real tragedy. The fact is Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, but he remains in power in Damascus, weakened but unapologetic. Assad claims to have given up his entire chemical arsenal, but he still retains (and still uses) his chemical weapons to this day, fewer in number but every bit as deadly. For a world that claimed to learn its lesson after Saddam Hussein’s extensive use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, these failures are egregious and heartbreaking. So much for that “red line.”

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