Trump Must Avoid the Obama Red-Line Trap on Syria

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Some foreign policy controversies are all-consuming in the moment but soon fade into history; others loom larger as time passes. The Syria “red line” incident of 2013 falls into the latter category. The fifth anniversary of that episode is upon us, at a time when fears of chemical weapons attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — and a potential U.S. military response — are again rising.

The original incident unleashed vitriolic debates about coercive diplomacy, credibility and U.S. strategy. Those debates are worth revisiting now, as the Donald Trump administration confronts a Syrian civil war that is intensifying in dangerous ways. 

The red-line saga began in August 2012. Responding to reports that Assad was preparing to use chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, President Barack Obama casually announced that such attacks would cross a U.S. “red line” and provoke an unspecified but presumably severe response. Assad nonetheless conducted escalating chemical attacks, culminating in a strike in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,000 civilians in late August 2013.

True to its word, the Obama administration wound up for punitive military strikes in concert with the British and the French. Then everything went haywire. The U.K. dropped out after the government of David Cameron lost a parliamentary vote on whether to use force. Obama got cold feet, pulling back just as a strike seemed imminent and announcing that he would use force only if Congress authorized it. It quickly became clear that congressional authorization was not forthcoming — and that Obama himself was hesitant at best about striking Assad.

Yet as the administration headed toward an embarrassing retreat, the Russian government interceded by brokering a diplomatic settlement. That deal resulted in the removal of some 1,300 tons of Assad’s chemical weapons and averted U.S. military action. 

Afterward, Obama’s defenders claimed that the episode was a testament to coercive diplomacy and the importance of exploring all options short of war. Critics warned that Obama’s climb-down would have disastrous effects for global perceptions of U.S. competence, credibility and power. Looking back, there was some truth in both arguments, but the costs of the decision now seem greater than the benefits.

In fairness, the Obama administration was in a tight spot in 2013, and the escape route it chose had advantages. As U.S. officials understood, even robust military action would not eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons. American ground forces could not strike the stockpiles themselves without the risk of releasing deadly toxins. And completely shattering Assad’s command-and-control structures carried some danger of allowing extremist groups to capture chemical-weapon components.

The diplomatic solution that emerged probably removed a larger portion of Assad’s chemical weapons than airstrikes would have, which alone provided a measure of stability in a chaotic situation. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who loathed Obama, called the removal of some of Syria’s chemical weapons “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”

Yet the critics were also right in warning that Obama’s red-line diplomacy was fraught with drawbacks and dangers. We now know that Assad’s “disarmament” was far from complete, as the regime again launched major chemical weapons attacks on civilians in 2017 and 2018. In fact, the lesson Assad learned from the red-line episode seems to have been that he could intermittently employ chemical weapons while escaping meaningful punishment. Russian influence in Syria increased, presaging still-deeper involvement when the Kremlin intervened militarily to shore up Assad’s sagging regime in 2015.

What’s more, the slapdash nature of U.S. policy — the off-the-cuff drawing of red lines, the unpredictable changes of course, the president’s obvious ambivalence about fulfilling his own threats — hardly improved international perceptions of U.S. competence and seriousness. Finally, the episode did inflict real blows on U.S. credibility — the perception that America will make good on its promises and threats.

Obama often downplayed the importance of credibility, saying that “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” Yet if this comment tended to downplay the concrete geopolitical and humanitarian motives for striking Assad in 2013, it was also dead wrong with respect to credibility.

For a global superpower with global security commitments, credibility is crucial. (I co-authored a longer report on this subject earlier this year.) If U.S. credibility is robust, then friends and allies will feel secure, rivals and enemies will be kept in check, and the American-led international system will be fairly stable. If U.S. credibility crumbles, friends will feel insecure and enemies will be tempted to test American power. The long-term cost of the red-line episode was that it sent just the wrong message about American credibility at just the wrong time.

“Our adversaries were watching this,” then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel later said, “we were losing credibility everywhere in the world.” As the crisis was unfolding, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “Our interests would be seriously set back in many respects if we are viewed as not capable, or willing … to follow through on the things that we say matter to us.” Afterward, he acknowledged that U.S. policy “cost us significantly in the region.”

Numerous U.S. partners in the Middle East were indeed reportedly dismayed by the softness of the American red line, particularly at a moment when they were legitimately questioning Obama’s willingness to contain Iranian regional influence. In Europe and East Asia, observers worried about what the incident meant regarding America’s willingness to stand up to intensifying challenges from Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the Western Pacific. “This signal was interpreted as weakness from the international community,” French President Francois Hollande remarked.

Admittedly, it is difficult to say precisely what impact that perceived weakness had on the subsequent calculations of allies and adversaries. But the sense that Washington was wavering in its willingness to honor its commitments surely did not have a stabilizing effect on global affairs just as revisionist actors were starting to test international norms and balances of power in increasingly assertive ways.

So does this mean Trump should hit Assad’s regime hard if it uses chemical weapons in its current offensive in Idlib province? The answer is less straightforward than it might seem, because the situation in Syria today is so much worse than it was in 2013. The battlespace is more congested and dangerous due to Russian intervention. Moderate Syrian rebels have been battered and marginalized, leaving an array of hardline Islamist groups well placed to benefit from any weakening of the regime.

These reasons are presumably why, even as Trump has twice vindicated Obama’s red line by carrying out military strikes in response to Assad’s chemical-weapons attacks, he has done so in a pinprick fashion better suited to avoiding escalation than shifting the trajectory of the conflict. If America’s options in Syria were always bad, they are truly atrocious today.

Yet there is one clear lesson that Trump should heed: Draw your red lines carefully and enforce them vigorously. The Obama administration got in trouble for carelessly making a threat the president was not inclined to enforce. The Trump administration has made similar errors, by issuing a bewildering array of pronouncements about its aims in Syria, and by making threats — such as Trump’s promise to make Assad pay a “big price” for earlier chemical attacks — that it cannot or will not make good on.

Five years on, the red-line incident shows that credibility is a valuable commodity. U.S. presidents should not put it on the line unless they are willing to defend it aggressively when challenged.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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