One of the revelations of the 14 April military attack on three government sites in Syria by the United States, France and Britain is that the specifics of Bashar al-Assad’s enduring WMD program must have been known, in advance, by Western intelligence agencies. How else could the Allies – in response to the Douma atrocity – target with such alacrity and precision the Barzeh research and development site in Damascus, the Him Shinsar storage site near Homs and the Him Shinsar bunker also near Homs?
Self-evidently, everything the Obama administration ever said about ending Syria’s chemical weapons industry through the auspices of the Kremlin turns out to be false. In 2014, for instance, then Secretary of State John Kerry proudly claimed that the problem of Syria’s WMDs was solved: ‘We struck a deal where we got 100 per cent of the chemical weapons out.’
The negotiations with Moscow and Damascus, we might recall, were the result of a last-minute decision by President Obama to halt a US attack on Assad’s military assets in response to the 21 August, 2013 Ghouta chemical-weapons assault, which slaughtered between 281 and 1,729 civilians. If the Syrians, under pressure from the Russians, pledged to eliminate their WMD enterprise in its entirety, Assad would be spared retribution for the war crimes committed against the population of Ghouta. That was all President Obama’s brainchild, with just a little assistance from Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Vikorovich Lavrov.
Obama took flak at the time for failing to enforce a ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Even Vice President Biden is reported to have reproached the Commander-in-Chief and argued that ‘big nations don’t bluff’. After all, Barack Obama had first issued the ‘red line’ warning, much to the surprise of his aids, way back in August 2012, and then re-iterated the point in a letter sent to Congress in April 2013 by his legislative affairs director Miguel E. Rodriguez: ‘We go on to reaffirm that the President has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us, nor should it be to the international committee.’
The last lengthy interview President Obama undertook while still in the White House, given to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in early 2016, will have to serve as his memoir until the real thing is published. During it, interestingly enough, Barack Obama remembers his standing down the military response to Ghouta as one of the greatest achievements in his presidency: ‘I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national security apparatus had gone fairly far… And the fact that I was able to pull back from immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made – and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.’
Time has proven him wrong. That said, there are three points that might be made in Obama’s defence. Firstly, the proof of Assad’s culpability. The intelligence community – albeit under the problematic leadership of James Clapper – provided President Obama with evidence that was ‘robust’ but not, according to the Atlantic, a ‘slam dunk’. We cannot put it past Salafi-jihadists (the same ideologues who mostly held sway over Douma and Ghouta) committing war crimes against their own people in order to further a political agenda.
Today, however, to believe that Assad has not repeatedly used chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war requires a suspension of disbelief that is to beggar belief. In this sense, at least, Trump had the benefit of five years of accumulated Western intelligence.
A second justification for President Obama’s inaction at the time of Ghouta is less defensible. True, it would certainly have benefitted Sunni fanatics (al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State group and so on), as John Kerry now also argues, if President Obama had obliterated Assad’s air force back in August 2013. Then again, Obama could have – as Trump just did! – employed America’s almost miraculous superiority in military wherewithal to make the point: each new chemical weapons attack (such as last year in Khan Sheikhoun) will attract an incremental and proportionate response from the civilized world. For somebody who is ‘unhinged’ and a ‘moron’, as his critics claim, the vulgarian Donald Trump seems to come up with one brilliant foreign policy initiative after another, all of them having eluded the soaring intellect of Obama.
A final defence of President Obama’s reversal in the aftermath of the Ghouta outrage is that any assault on the Syrian government might have been illegal or – in any case – against the wishes of Congress. Or – and this might be getting closer to the nub of the issue – some kind of ‘trap’. What would happen if a US airman was shot down and captured? That could mean American boots on the ground in a possible rescue attempt. And what to do if a targeted chemical storage site began emitting toxic fumes? Please, dear God, I don’t want to be responsible for this! Why can’t everybody just be nice to each other and let me vindicate my Nobel Peace Prize?
This morning, Paul Barrett, with his ‘40 years’ experience of policy advising and international negotiations in the area of defence, foreign relations, international trade and [sigh] climate change’ was on ABC radio giving his response to President Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’. Despite having attempted to thwart future gassings of Syrian civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s homicidal regime, Trump – according to our Paul – is a ‘weak’ leader. Assad has won his civil war (at a cost of 600,000 plus fatalities) and so let’s just leave it at that. Those who have a problem with chemical weapons are right ‘up to a point’ – but leave it to the UN to enforce international law. Of course.
After listening to Paul Barrett’s sparkling tête-à-tête with Glen Bartholomew on ABC NewsRadio, I made myself a pot of tea and lamented that ‘strong’ Barack Obama was no longer the leader of the Free World.
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