Syria: Return of the red line

Aron Lund

Freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor

As Syria’s warring parties take stock of US President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike and of his warnings against the use of chemical weapons, the dominant theme seems to be one of confusion. Has Trump’s policy toward Syria changed, or was the missile attack strictly about deterrence? If so, what was it intended to deter, and what would cause Trump to strike again?

Trump is a longstanding sceptic of American involvement in the war in Syria and a harsh critic of the mostly Islamist rebels fighting Syria’s authoritarian government. Since taking office three months ago, he has kept a low profile on Syrian affairs, but in late March the new president’s priorities began to manifest themselves.

On 30 March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced at a press conference in Ankara that the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would now “be decided by the Syrian people”, which is to say, it won’t, but the United States will no longer try to get him to leave. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley followed up by telling reporters, “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting al-Assad out”, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer piled on: “with respect to al-Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now”.

Not the most eloquent formulation of a new policy, but clear enough. However, only a few days later, the US suddenly seemed to reverse course once again.

The massacre in Khan Sheikhoun

On 4 April, the rebel-controlled city of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria was the scene of a massacre, with dozens of civilians reportedly poisoned by the nerve agent sarin. Horrifying pictures of choking children spread first across social media and then through the world press. Local activists said the attack had come from the air, indicating that the Syrian government was behind it.

The international reaction broke along familiar lines. Al-Assad and his foreign allies, notably Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied involvement and accused the Syrian opposition of having staged the incident, though they presented conflicting narratives about what had actually happened. Meanwhile, pro-opposition governments like the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Israel insisted they had evidence the Syrian government had fired sarin-tipped rockets from a Su-22 jet. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons later concluded that the Khan Sheikhoun victims had been poisoned with “sarin or a sarin-like substance”, though Russia and Syria dispute these findings.

If the Syrian air force had indeed used sarin gas, it would represent a flagrant breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Damascus signed in 2013, and a direct challenge to the UN.

The issue was particularly sensitive for the United States, which was close to striking Syrian military installations in September 2013 after concluding al-Assad’s forces had breached a US “red line” by killing hundreds of people with sarin near Damascus. Instead, then-president Barack Obama decided to use the momentum created by his threat of intervention to work together with Putin to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The ensuing deal was hailed as an “ugly win” by administration officials but criticised by Obama’s opponents and some of his allies, including many supporters of the Syrian opposition who had hoped for US military intervention against al-Assad.

To many Americans, the September 2013 crisis has come to epitomise a wider debate over how Obama should have handled the Syrian crisis. It also shaped Trump’s posture before Khan Sheikhoun. Although Trump had demanded congressional authorisation before launching airstrikes and called on Obama to “stay out of Syria” in 2013, he later turned around and began to use the red line affair to portray his predecessor as feckless and weak. On his watch, he promised, America would not back down from a challenge like Obama had.

With Khan Sheikhoun, Trump had his own red line moment. According to the White House, US intelligence agencies quickly concluded that al-Assad was responsible and that the weapon used was sarin. Unlike in 2013, there was little hope of recourse to a UN investigation – Russia had spent the previous three years undermining Obama's 2013 deal and seemed determined to veto anything put forth in the Security Council, regardless of what UN and OPCW investigators came up with.

Trump made clear he had reacted strongly to the images coming out of Khan Sheikhoun. “My attitude toward Syria and al-Assad has changed very much,” he said. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal – people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”

The US missile strike

Just before dawn on 7 April, the United States launched a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian military air base at Shayrat, southeast of Homs, from where the White House claimed that a Su-22 had taken off to bombard Khan Sheikhoun. Storage depots, hangars, and several jets were reportedly destroyed; US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the attack had taken out some 20 aircraft, which, if true, would represent a very significant loss to the Syrian air force.

To no one’s surprise, the US attack was condemned by the Syrian government and its allies, and welcomed by Syrian opposition leaders, many of whom called for continued air strikes and a no-fly zone. Regional allies of the opposition took the same line, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exclaiming that the cruise missile attack was “positive” but “not enough”.

Reactions in the United States were also largely positive, but the strikes triggered a tense debate over how to interpret Trump’s decision and, relatedly, what to do next. In announcing the missile strike, the Pentagon had described it as a “proportional response” and said that the “use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated”, which indicated that Trump had now drawn his own red line against the use of chemical weapons. But the statement made no mention of other goals or policies in Syria.

Some of those involved in US debate over Syria wanted the Trump administration to keep raising the pressure on al-Assad. Having previously advocated deeper US intervention in the war, they argued that the 7 April strike had proven that military means were effective and posed limited risks to US forces. In their view, the United States should not stop at a one-off strike. Instead, the Shayrat attack should be incorporated into a broader strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict on American terms, by tipping the military balance and engineering a political transition away from al-Assad’s rule.

However, intervention sceptics cautioned against what they viewed as demands for irresponsible escalation, warning that Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran would not stand idly by if regime survival were threatened, and that the United States risked wading into a quagmire of open-ended and unproductive intervention. Now, they said, administration officials needed to exercise “rhetorical discipline and restraint” and make clear that the Shayrat attack was indeed a one-off punitive strike, in order not to squander the lesser but potentially achievable goal of a reestablished chemical weapons deterrence.

Mixed messages

The Trump administration seemed largely oblivious to these finer points of strategy, focusing instead on seeking domestic praise for the strikes. But for all the rhetoric about Trump as a man of action who had defended US red lines, there was still very little clarity about what the president considered those red lines to mean.

The confusion revolved around two issues: whether Trump had reasserted the old policy of seeking al-Assad’s removal, and what had motivated him to use military force in Syria. Would the United States strike again if there were new reports about large massacres of civilians, or would Trump only react against the use of chemical weapons? If so, would he seek to deter the use of military-grade nerve gas, like sarin, or would he also respond to less lethal and improvised chemical munitions, like the chlorine bombs that have been in widespread use in Syria since 2014?

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A couple of days after the strike, Haley declared that the United States could not envisage “any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with al-Assad at the head of the regime”, which many took to mean that Trump had indeed backtracked from his view of al-Assad as a “political reality”. But Haley was quickly contradicted by Tillerson, who said the strike “was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons” and “other than that, there is no change to our military posture”.

Later, however, Tillerson indicated that although the United States was not about to overthrow al-Assad, it was prepared to engage in very intensive policing of the battlefield: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said at a press conference in Italy. Right after Tillerson’s remarks, White House press secretary Sean Spicer casually asserted that Trump would attack anyone who bombed civilians in Syria, with or without poison gas: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can – you will – see a response from this president,” he said.

The term “barrel bomb” refers to helicopter-dropped explosive charges that are very widely used by the Syrian air force. According to a pro-opposition human rights group, the Syrian government dropped nearly 13,000 such bombs in 2016 alone. Preventing their use against civilians would require considerably more effort than one or two punitive strikes.

It was only at this point that the Trump administration seemed to realise it had a messaging problem, and that it was seen to be drawing red lines it wasn’t prepared to defend. The White House quickly rolled back Spicer’s statement, saying he had meant only chlorine-filled barrel bombs, not the conventional high-explosive kind.

Trump has backed off from seeking regime change in Syria, but, at the same time, he has retraced Obama’s red line against chemical weapons, while leaving open a possibility of additional retaliation against massacres committed with conventional arms

The following day, Mattis attempted to clear up both the al-Assad issue and the extent of Trump’s red lines in Syria. “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS”. But Mattis warned that Syrian officials should expect to “pay a very, very stiff price” for any continued use of chemical arms, which, he noted, “could be considered a red line”. When asked whether his definition of chemical arms included chlorine gas, Mattis answered in the affirmative: “Chemical weapons are chemical weapons,” he said. “It is not about whether it's delivered with an artillery shell or it's delivered by a helicopter with a barrel bomb, or a fighter aircraft with a bomb. It’s about chemical weapons.”

This seems to be a considerably more expansive red line than the previous administration was prepared to enforce with military means. The Syrian opposition reported more than 130 chlorine attacks in the first two years after the 2013 red line affair. Though few of these cases have been fully investigated, a Security Council-designated UN-OPCW team of experts concluded last year that the Syrian government committed at least three chlorine attacks in 2014-2015. In response, the Obama administration unsuccessfully pushed for UN sanctions and, when blocked by Russia, moved to unilaterally sanction Syrian officials. This did not stop the reports of chlorine attacks, however, and they have continued since Trump took office. Though the UN-OPCW panel has not yet investigated the recent allegations, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has accused pro-government forces of carrying out four chlorine attacks between 30 January and 21 February in the eastern Ghouta region. Anti-Assad activists in that area also reported a new chlorine attack immediately after the US cruise missile strikes.

On 12 April, the Wall Street Journal finally got Trump himself to explain his policy. The president confirmed his view of the missile attack as a one-off punitive strike, rather than an argument in the debate over al-Assad’s future. While he said he believed al-Assad’s ouster is probably “going to happen at a certain point,” he did not feel it should be America’s doing. “We have other fights that are fights that are more important as far as our nation’s concerned,” Trump said. “We don’t need that quicksand.” Asked what would prompt him to strike in Syria again, the president said any renewed use of chemical weapons by al-Assad would trigger another attack.

That, then, seems to be current US policy: Trump has backed off from seeking regime change in Syria, but, at the same time, he has retraced Obama’s red line against chemical weapons, while leaving open a possibility of additional retaliation against massacres committed with conventional arms.

How stable Is the new US policy?

Michael Anton, who serves as head of strategic communications at the US National Security Council, recently told Politico the cruise missile attack fits well into Trump’s non-interventionist policy and should not be “touted as some major change”. But he also praised Trump for being “a very flexible person” who “responds to events” rather than adhering to a particular ideology or strategy. According to Anton, “the only thing maybe predictable about his foreign policy is that he says to the world, ’I'm going to be unpredictable,’” which, he said, would help the United States “keep adversaries, competitors alike, sort of off-balance”.

That’s one way of looking at it. From the other end of the table, one could argue that it is in fact the United States that is now off-balance – swaying from one idea to the next according to the whims of its commander-in-chief, while State Department and Pentagon officials struggle to interpret and implement unclear guidance in ways pleasing to the president, all working toward the Oval Office in dissonant concert.

It also raises the question of how permanent Trump’s new Syria policy will be, considering his reluctance to communicate his views at length or in depth, his apparently less than fully-formed ideas on the subject, and the forces within his own administration that are quietly pushing for more aggressive intervention in Syria. And what to make of the fact that this famously popularity-obsessed president was showered in praise by former critics after his missile strike, while his otherwise poor poll ratings experienced a quick uptick? The Tomahawk effect already seems to be wearing off, but it is hard to shake the suspicion that Trump might be tempted to seek the role of war president again.

What that means for Syria remains to be seen, but a red line has been drawn. It is unlikely to remain untested.

(TOP PHOTO: An injured woman in Idlib pictured soon after losing her husband and two children to a Syrian army strike in 2012. CREDIT: Freedomhouse2/Flickr)

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