Syria Chemical Weapons: What's In A Red Line?

Last August, President Obama set forward his widely-cited “red line” for Syria: the the use of chemical or biological weapons would cross that line and be a “game changer” that would provoke U.S. action in the crisis. And as the situation moves relentlessly from bad to worse, it looks as though the line has been crossed.

As the death toll climbs well above 70,000 and the U.S. has moved 200 troops to neighboring Jordan, the administration has set itself squarely between a rock and a hard place, with implications far-reaching beyond Syria. This is not President Obama’s only red-line in place for rogue regimes, and the fear remains that backing down in this case will send a clear and undeniable signal to leaders from North Korea to Iran that America’s bark in 2013 is worse than its bite.

Some argue that the president has carefully crafted ambiguous rhetoric to allow room to stay out of Syria despite recent developments. He initially set his limit by saying, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime ... that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."

What is a “whole bunch” of chemical weapons? What would a “change in calculus” look like? The line has been re-articulated in so many different ways (at least seven times, as collected by TIME here). All that was set was a “murky, pinkish-reddish-orange line,” one analyst insists in Foreign Policy, citing this as evidence nothing will likely change despite recent developments.

The problem with nit picking language is that in today’s realpolitik in the region, these details rarely matter.

Just as Obama has acknowledged, “the world is watching.”

Assad — and other dictators — know exactly what line Obama is tip-toeing around, and exactly what backing down might look like. And, if the coming days reveal what is all-too-likely in terms of use of chemical weapons containing the nerve agent sarin, meek “recommendations” to the UN won’t suffice if the administration wants to save face on the issue and signal that America maintains hard lines in its foreign policy and isn’t afraid of the risks real action can pose.

The clear problem facing the administration is that the risks of inaction and action look almost the same: horrifically bleak. Although Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is eager as ever to insist the United States can help the Syrians with action including “provid[ing] weapons to people in the resistance who we trust,” experts on the region have been consistently outspoken with pessimism. The main concern is that military action (including upping assistance to include “lethal” aid to Syrian National Council rebels) could not only prove futile, but also may pose perverse impact, risking putting weapons in the hands of unknown and dangerous players, turning the state into a lasting black hole in the region.  

In a situation that General Martin Dempsey termed “as complicated as any on the planet,” the administration will have to acknowledge that the risks of action and inaction relate not only to America’s complicated interests in this case, but have unfortunate spillover effects on reputation and credibility for America's larger grand-strategy. That is, if America risks backing down on rhetoric in Syria, this may impact America’s negotiating power with respect to Obama’s red line for Iran and its nuclear development, for example, and signal to any future human rights abusers that America is too feeble to act.

Despite Obama’s attempt to move America’s diplomatic ship towards liberal multilateralism and soft-power appeals, American diplomacy is still based widely on a degree of hard-power credibility.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has explained that the president "requires options.” As it seems clear China and Russia are no more poised to support a full-fledged multilateral UN intervention, American middle-line efforts might be worth considering as options to maintain independent credibility on the issue. Proposed options include the use of Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to create a “safe zone” in Northern Syria, establishing a no fly zone, and even targeting Assad’s heaviest units.

These options come with risks of their own, but suggest steps that can confer some semblance of credibility to the established line. Otherwise, what can be expected are more pushes for UN “investigations” into Syria which offer nothing in terms of real world solutions. The risks in blood and treasure for any U.S. action are undeniably high in this case, but harder-to-calculate stakes for foreign policy reputation and credibly should not be pushed out of the equation as the Obama administration navigates the painful foreign policy conundrum it is facing.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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