Nazes Afroz: A Thin ‘Red Line’

One year after he took a stand on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama finds himself trapped in his own rhetoric:

The world set a red line when governments representing 98 per cent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons was abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. That was not something I just kind of made up, I did not pluck it out of thin air.

When United States President Barak Obama said this at a news conference in Stockholm last week, it sounded like he was trying desperately to justify the off-the-cuff comment he made a year ago. In August 2012, he had given a clear message to the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad: that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would change the ‘calculus’ and the ‘equation’.

It may seem a bit strange that the President is clarifying what he meant by something he said a year ago while the whole world is on edge waiting to find out how the US House of Representatives will vote on a proposal by the White House to take ‘limited military action’ to ‘punish’ President Assad for ‘using’ chemical weapons on his own people. That is because Obama is finding it increasingly difficult to sell another war to the majority of the American people and their elected representatives, who will decide on his proposal.

He has seen how public opinion against such a military intervention led to the defeat of Prime Minister David Cameron in British parliament. So he is trying to establish that the proposal set forth by his White House has nothing to do with his personal moral position, and is instead based on an international obligation.

Ever since the alleged use of sarin gas by the Assad regime in the rebel-controlled eastern suburbs of Damascus hit headlines worldwide, Obama’s reference to the ‘red line’ has frequently come up—mostly unfavourably— in TV discussions and newspaper commentaries.

Satirist Jon Stewart lambasted the President on The Daily Show joking that the red line ‘is actually a dick-measuring ribbon’, while David Letterman, a big supporter of Obama, ripped into him saying, ‘So, it’s taken him five years, but finally the guy has learned how to bullshit.’ Even mainstream and pro-establishment media commentators are continually voicing opinions against the military action proposed by the President.


It may seem, from President Obama’s passionate championing of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), that the US has a principled and consistent position on the issue of chemical weapons. But evidence from recent history show otherwise; the US has always turned a blind eye when such weapons were stockpiled or used by its allies and helped achieve America’s foreign policy objectives.

It is common knowledge that during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein frequently used chemical weapons, namely mustard and nerve gas, on Iranian troops. Last week, a cache of declassified CIA dispatches sent from Baghdad during the ten-year war have come to light. The files conclusively prove the Iraqi army’s use of chemical weapons with the full knowledge and complicity of the US, which supplied Saddam Hussein with the information that led to the use of sarin gas on Iranian troops.

The CIA station’s report from Baghdad back to Washington on 24 February 1984 is most telling. It states that Iraq began an aggressive programme to produce chemical weapons in 1981, and that chemicals, ammunitions, equipment and expertise were purchased in Western Europe and Egypt ‘with a view towards development of both mustard and nerve agents.’ The report also says that Iraq started using mustard gas in 1983.

In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, an American intelligence officer said that in 1988, the US had supplied satellite images to Iraq with early warnings of an impending Iranian attack, and that this information resulted in an Iraqi assault on Iranian position with chemical weapons. The US was also fully aware when Saddam Hussein used nerve gas against Iraqi Kurdish civilians in Halabja in 1988.

One does not have to be an insider to conclude that President Ronald Reagan’s administration had full knowledge of such large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi army but wanted the war to tilt against Iran, so never acted to stop it from taking place.

The claim to a ‘principled position’ by the US flies in the face of these recently published documents. Not only in the case of Iraq-Iran war, but in recent times too, the US has time and again turned a blind eye when international norms—or even its own laws—were violated.

America chose to remain mute when Israel, its greatest ally in the Middle East, clandestinely acquired and armed itself with nuclear weapons. It has been suspected that the US turned the other way while Syria stockpiled chemical weapons in reaction to Israel’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal because President Assad was then in the US’ good books. Former diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post Glenn Kessler has, by recently quoting his conversations with American and Middle Eastern diplomats, confirmed this suspicion.


So why is President Obama so fixated on taking punitive action against Syria? On this, there is a consensus among commentators inside as well as outside America: he does not want to be seen as a weak leader.

Many have also brought in the Iran factor. Syria is the only client-state of Iran, the archenemy of America since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Taking out Syria’s regime, which is controlled by Tehran, and cornering Iran would seem a prime foreign policy objective for the US. But will it be an easy task? It is far from likely.

Obama’s plan of not ‘putting boots on the ground’ and only punishing Syria by sending in a few cruise missiles will invite Russia into the game. Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he would take action if the US showered missiles on Syria, though he did not clarify what exactly that action would be. Russia has deeply entrenched interests in Syria, as the Assad regime is one of the biggest importers of Russian arms. A few years ago, under international pressure, Russia suspended its supply of advanced air-defence missiles to Syria. It is likely President Putin would resume all suspended arms supply to the Assad regime, thus making it stronger.

Syria is a melting pot of almost three dozen ethnic groups that are spread thinly in all its neighbouring countries. Even though Arab Sunnis are in a majority, the country has been ruled by the Alawite Shia Assad family since 1970. The family heads the secular but dictatorial Ba’ath party and has ruled the country with an iron fist by throttling dissenting voices.

Arab Sunnis are now leading the charge against President Assad in various pockets of the country. The composition of these rebels is also a tinderbox. External extremist Sunni groups with affiliations to Al-Qaeda have taken control of some of the rebel factions. These groups, enjoying open support from the despotic Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and other kingdoms in the Gulf region, have carried out unspeakable atrocities against minorities like the Christians and Armenians during the last two years of the civil war. These minorities have now lined up behind President Assad.

If the US intervention gives an upper hand to these extremist groups, it is very likely that the civil war as yet confined to Syria will spill over as a sectarian conflict into other countries in the region such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This will undoubtedly throw the entire region into a state of chaos.

If this is the summary of the accepted and credible analysis coming from all quarters, then why would President Obama still want to press his case of ‘limited’ punitive action against the Assad regime instead of going the diplomatic route by using Russia’s influence in Syria? It could be because he boxed himself into a corner by drawing a red line of moral obligation a year ago and the media latched on to it. What is clear is that the support he is after will be difficult to come by.

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Filed under Disarmament, Discussion, Pakistan Horizon, Syria, The Arab Spring, The Middle East, United States

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