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“The worst day in Western diplomatic history”

The Obama administration’s actions and inactions in Syria have undermined the global chemical weapons regime.

The Telegraph has called September 9, 2013 the “Worst day in Western diplomatic history.”

A series of rather spectacular gaffes on Syria have hurt the Obama administration’s credibility at home and abroad. Syria, however, only represents a microcosm of the Obama administration’s disastrous handling of affairs in West Asia since the beginning of popular uprisings in the region in 2010.

Perhaps swayed by public sentiment or by a desire to not be seen as being interventionist, the Obama administration watched as despot after despot was dethroned in the Middle East.  This was good, many people argued, because “democracy” was an idea that had finally arrived in the Middle East.  The people had spoken.

Except that the institutions for democratic governance weren’t there in the Middle East nor could they be built overnight.  Thus, those who rode momentary popular waves of support to assume leadership in these countries simply carried on in the ways of the last usurper by accumulating power, subverting law and silencing opposition.  Three years on, not only is there no democracy in the Middle East, the region is now significantly more volatile than during the last three decades of rule by U.S.-allied strongmen.  Large swathes of Syria and Libya are now controlled by Islamist militias, many of whom are allied with al-Qaeda.  Egypt is on boil as the Muslim Brotherhood spars with the Deep State.

In Syria — like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — the Obama administration chose not to intervene militarily when uprisings against the regimes broke out.  Choosing not to intervene then in Syria made sense.  U.S. interests in Syria are limited and Syria has never been a U.S. national security priority.  But the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the battle between insurgents and Bashar al-Assad’s regime concerned many, including the U.S., which pushed for a Coalition of the Somewhat-Willing to provide arms and ammunition to the Free Syria Army and other rebels, but not intervene directly in the conflict.  Two years on, the battle for Syria is still inconclusive and the civilian death toll is well over 100,000.

Having decided against direct intervention in 2011, Mr. Obama erred in declaring an arbitrary “red line” for U.S. military action in Syria to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.  The red line is arbitrary because a precedent for intervention on the grounds of the use of chemical weapons by one party in a conflict simply does not exist.

In fact, as this piece from The George Washington University’s National Security Archives tells us, Saddam Hussein’s “almost daily use” of chemical weapons against Iran and Kurdish insurgents were “known-knowns” to the U.S. when Donald Rumsfeld met with Mr. Hussein in 1983 to discuss, among other things, their mutual antipathy towards Iran and potential alternate routes to transport Iraq’s oil to the U.S.:

The U.S., which followed developments in the Iran-Iraq war with extraordinary intensity, had intelligence confirming Iran’s accusations, and describing Iraq’s “almost daily” use of chemical weapons, concurrent with its policy review and decision to support Iraq in the war [Document 24]. The intelligence indicated that Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces, and, according to a November 1983 memo, against “Kurdish insurgents” as well [Document 25].

Following further high-level policy review, Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 114, dated November 26, 1983, concerned specifically with U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The directive reflects the administration’s priorities: it calls for heightened regional military cooperation to defend oil facilities, and measures to improve U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and directs the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take appropriate measures to respond to tensions in the area.  It does not mention chemical weapons [Document 26].

Soon thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld (who had served in various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as President Ford’s defense secretary, and at this time headed the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co.) was dispatched to the Middle East as a presidential envoy…

Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and the U.S.’s efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq’s oil; its facilities in the Persian Gulf had been shut down by Iran, and Iran’s ally, Syria, had cut off a pipeline that transported Iraqi oil through its territory. Rumsfeld made no reference to chemical weapons, according to detailed notes on the meeting [Document 31]. [National Security Archives]

So having committed to a “red line” which had no precedent,  the Obama administration was put in a fix when intelligence reports recently emerged of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian insurgency.  Mr. Obama’s enthusiasm for a limited military strike against the Assad regime wasn’t shared by all.  Many in the U.S. questioned the value of a limited strike, while the UK voted against participation in a military operation against Syria.

Even as momentum towards a military strike against Syria was being built,  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bizarrely ad-libbed his way into declaring that military operations would be put on hold if Syria turned over its chemical weapon stockpile.  The Russians and Syrians capitalized on Mr. Kerry’s statements; U.S. military operations against Syria are now on hold, pending U.S.-Russian discussions in Geneva on the logistics of negotiating the Assad regime’s surrender of its chemical weapons stockpile.

These events have effectively left in tatters both the Obama administration’s credibility in the region as well as the collective efforts of the last thirty years towards an international regime against the use of chemical weapons.

Deterrence works only if punitive responses to non-compliance are credible.  In this case, either the Assad regime calculated that its use of chemical weapons would go undetected or that detection would not matter because the U.S.’s ability to make good on its threats was not credible.  This has proven to be the case.  The Obama administration’s handling of the situation in Syria undermines the Chemical Weapons Convention and sets a poor precedent on the future use of chemical weapons.

Others might rightly conclude that the costs of using chemical weapons will be insignificant and can be absorbed.  As long as promises are made to the effect that any existing stockpiles of chemical weapons — post-use — are relinquished, no harm will come of them.  Considering the logistical challenges inherent in both verifying the destruction or surrender of chemical weapons stockpiles, and the ease through which new chemical weapons stockpiles can be built (relative to, say, nuclear weapons), this is a bargain most countries will take.

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