Red Lines, Game Changers, & Genies:

President Obama & Chemical Weapons in Syria

Jason Enia
Cases in Crisis & Disaster
38 min readSep 30, 2015


By Jason Enia & Kelley Brown, Sam Houston State University

Part A: Choices

Is this a red line?

“Mr. President, why has the red line been crossed — -?”

It was April 26, 2013, and U.S. President Barack Obama was sitting next to the King of Jordan, holding the customary photo op and press conference, prior to their more formal meeting. The reporter’s question was the same one that happened to be on every other reporter’s mind. President Obama sensed this, cutting the reporter off and asking, “You guys all have the same question?

The reporter’s use of the phrase “red line” was deliberate. In July 2012, a Foreign Ministry spokesman for embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad made the inflammatory statement that his regime would not hesitate to use its chemical weapons stockpile if outside countries chose to intervene in the Syrian civil war that had been raging for the better part of two years. Assad had even moved some of the weapons as a signal of the seriousness of his threat. The Assad government considered this a purely domestic affair. One month later, in August 2012, Obama stepped to the microphone at a news conference and responded to a question about these developments:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, 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. That would change my equation.”

President Obama and King Abdullah of Jordan meet with reporters prior to their bilateral meeting. April 26, 2013.

Red lines. Change my calculus. Now, eight months later in April 2013, everyone was wondering about these phrases because of what had happened recently in the war zone. Or at least, what appeared to have happened. Reports out of Syria indicated that chemical weapons had been used by government forces against the rebels in four attacks on March 19. A number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Israel, were openly stating that the evidence had convinced them that the weapons had been used and that the Assad government had been behind their use.

At the press conference with King Abdullah, President Obama was cautious about both the evidence of chemical weapons use and his response.

“These are preliminary assessments based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where, these weapons may have been used. So, we’re going to be pursuing a very vigorous investigation ourselves, and we’re going to be consulting with our partners in the region as well as the international community in the United Nations to make sure we’re investigating this as effectively and as quickly as we can.”

The president’s caution was rooted in recent history. The Obama administration was particularly sensitive to using the threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as an argument for invading another Middle Eastern country. Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, had played that card in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The massive stockpiles of weapons were never found and the ensuing invasion and occupation was much messier and more protracted than originally planned. The Obama Administration felt it had good reason to be prudent.

Nonetheless, the president now faced a major foreign policy decision. In the coming days and weeks, domestic political pressure would come from both sides of the aisle, and international pressure would come from various coalitions for and against intervention in the conflict. It was a decision that could have lasting implications for the Middle East and the United States’ role in the region. It could also have lasting implications for the role the U.S. and other countries might play in future humanitarian crises.

The Origins of the Syrian Conflict

In February 2011, a dozen teenage boys on their way home from school scribbled, “Asha’ab yureed isqat annidham” on a nondescript wall in the southern agricultural town of Dara’a. “The people want to bring the regime down” was familiar mantra of young would-be revolutionaries and could be found on walls throughout the Arab world. However, this particular act of vandalism touched off the deadliest civil war of the relatively young 21st century.

The boys’ graffiti provided the kindling, but a man named Atif Najeeb, a cousin of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the local governor of Hauran province, lighted the spark of revolution. He severely punished the boys (all under the age of 17 at the time) for their defiance of the Assad regime. They were immediately thrown in jail and interrogated, and armed guards conducted raids on their homes. When the boys were finally returned to their homes, about 18 days later, bruising and scars from torture and beatings were evident on their bodies. One of the boys allegedly involved in the incident, Bashir Abazed, gave an interview after his family fled to Jordan, which borders Hauran province. “Officers made him strip and he was searched. Then he was given back his underwear and shirt and led off to a basement where three of them began the torture, beating him with cables and giving him electric shocks. ‘I thought I would never get out,’ Bashir said. ‘It was so violent — I just wanted to die to get rid of the pain.’ The lead interrogator fired endless questions at him, asking who else was involved, who had set them up and whether they were jihadists.”

This appeared to be a massive overreaction to nothing more than childish vandalism. When word circulated, schoolteachers, Imams, parents and activists rallied for justice and demanded that Governor Najeeb be removed from office. The demonstrations took place over the weekend of March 18–20, 2011. Young men in Dara’a were allegedly seen throwing rocks at posters with President Assad’s picture, and grainy footage from a cell phone in Dara’a showed men chanting, “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” Local security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing and gravely injuring several. This act of violence by the police against Syrian civilians caused the whole country to take notice of the sleepy little province, and a revolution had unwittingly begun.

The response from the Assad government was swift. A high-ranking delegation from Damascus was sent to Hauran province to console the families of those who had been killed, and to diffuse the mounting tensions. Governor Najeeb was quietly removed from office. But the people were not satisfied. Since 2006 a series of economic decisions, particularly ones pertaining to an ongoing drought and its effects on Syria’s agricultural sector, had severely tarnished the people’s perspective of Bashar al-Assad’s government. In addition, recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen had inspired a collective feeling of rebellion throughout the Arab world.

According to Syrian dissident websites at the time, the Assad government had until March 25 to comply with a list of demands, or it would become “Friday of the Martyrs” throughout Syria. The list of demands included a lifting of the nation-wide martial law, which had effectively given Syria’s military absolute power over the population for 48 years. Also, more general demands were made to investigate and end pervasive corruption throughout the regime and pursue justice for the people of Dara’a killed during the protests. Demonstrations continued and quickly spread throughout the nation.

By Thursday March 24, government security forces had killed between 15–50 protestors. The Assad regime was scrambling for ways to placate protesters while simultaneously preparing for a larger crackdown. He pledged, for example, to increase worker’s salaries and media freedom, but at the same time cut off mobile phone providers and secretly increased military presence. Meanwhile, crowds as large as 20,000 had descended on Dara’a, creating a chaotic scene. On the infamous “Friday of Martyrs,” government forces again opened fire on protesters, but by this time the violence had spread from Hauran province and was nation wide.

On Saturday April 30 — six weeks after uprisings first began in Dara’a — the military seized a mosque widely believed to be the headquarters of the civilian demonstrators. Several protesters were shot and killed. This incident was a key turning point early on in the conflict. Even though publicly he had been promising massive government reforms, Assad had just sent a clear signal that he was intent on crushing the opposition through violence.

The regime still insisted that the unrest was the work of Salafists, and not their own people. “It is a matter of a few hours only, and everything will be finished in Dara’a,” a pro-government politician said from Damascus. “It is impossible for the Syrian regime to let some people announce a Salafi emirate in Dara’a. This is not Afghanistan.”

The Initial U.S. Response

Calls for Action, Calls for Caution

Early in the conflict, concerns about reports of violence against civilians and other types of systematic human rights abuses seemed to drive U.S. interest on the Syria issue. On March 25, 2011, Press Secretary Jay Carney presented the administration’s main concerns:

We strongly condemn the Syrian government’s attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators, and we are calling for an immediate cease to the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of the Syrian security forces…The stability and future of this region depends upon the decision by governments to listen to their people, to act on their legitimate aspirations, and to open up their systems so that the people of these countries can have a greater stake in the future of their country and their own futures. So we take the same position with Syria as we’ve taken with others.

Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks about human rights abuses in Syria. March 25, 2011.

One month later, the president signed an executive order that leveled sanctions against senior Syrian officials that he believed to be responsible for human rights abuses. These sanctions extended (for another year) the previous sanctions and added restrictions on commercial export licenses to Syria, particularly those related to aircraft that could be used to transport senior Syrian government officials.

The conflict continued and intensified over the next nine months. On February 6, 2012, the United States officially closed its embassy in Damascus. This option was not without precedent. Following the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005, the U.S. recalled its ambassador to Syria. In fact, the current ambasador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, was the first official ambassador appointed after a series of chargés d’affaires represented the U.S. from 2005–2011.

Many viewed these as limited measures and made arguments calling for more involvement on the part of the United States and its allies. Aside from the human rights concerns, there were a number of voices arguing that because Syria was one of the lone allies of Iran, the internal Syrian conflict represented significant national security interests for the United States. Those advocating stronger U.S. intervention wanted to see the U.S. provide weapons to the rebels to assist them in their cause. However, many were worried about the fragmentation of the rebels and the rise of several terrorist organizations in Syria, arguing that provided weapons might find their way into undesirable hands.

This debate extended into the Obama administration. By early summer 2012, top officials were meeting with the president twice per week. On the side of providing weapons to the rebels, Samantha Power, the head of one of President Obama’s newest initiatives, the Atrocities Prevention Board. Power had risen to prominence with her book, A Problem from Hell: America & the Age of Genocide, which focused on U.S.’ failings amidst the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Power argued that one of the U.S. primary repsonsbilities in the world is the protection of the powerless, particularly those who are falling victim to brutal regimes like Assad’s. On the other side of the argument were people like Deputy National Security Advisor, Denis McDonough, who argued that the U.S. should not get militarily involved in Syria.

Complicating the debate, were two recent cases that seemed to offer competing lessons. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. had intervened in the Balkans, and many in the Obama administration viewed that intervention as a necessary component in helping to end a humanitarian crisis and deal with dictators. However, the lessons of U.S. intervention in Iraq were also on their minds. The Obama administration seemed to be stuck between wanting to do something and worrying that it might have limited ability to influence the situation. In the summer of 2012, the administration was proceding very cautiously.

A Red Line on Chemical Weapons

Pallets of 155 mm artillery shells containing “HD” (distilled sulfur mustard agent) at Pueblo Depot Activity (PUDA) chemical weapons storage facility. Via Wikipedia.

As the crisis deepened, so did interest in one of its key wrinkles. For decades, Syria had been sitting on a massive stockpile of chemical weapons. Among the inventory were World War I-era blister agents, such as mustard gas, and the nerve agent sarin. In an annual report to Congress in 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) reported that Syria was even in the process of “developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX.” In addition to just possessing these weapons it was also well known that Syria possessed the capability and resources to deliver these weapons via “aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.” U.S. intelligence sources indicated there were between 35 and 40 stockpile sites.

Syria’s record with respect to these so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could best be described as mixed. On the one hand, Syria had never actually used the weapons. This was despite the fact that they had ample opportunities in their long-lasting conflicts with Israel over the Golan Heights and with Lebanon over a host of historical issues. In fact, a 1993 report by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service indicated:

“Syria does not regard the military toxic substances at the disposal of the Syrian army as WMD. According to Syrian military doctrine, military toxic substances are components of military parity only with Israel and will be used only in the event of large-scale aggression from Israel against Syria.”

On the other hand, despite the non-use, several aspects of Syria’s current program were troubling. For starters, Syrian officials maintained a policy of ambiguity regarding the weapons program and rarely talked about it publicly. The first public mention of its capabilities did not come until November 1996 when the Syrian ambassador to Egypt declared that Syria possessed the capability to retaliate with chemical weapons in the event of a nuclear threat by Israel. In addition, at the time of the onset of the civil war, Syria remained one of eight countries that had never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the cornerstone treaty of the global chemical weapons regime that sets out the rules and norms prohibiting the stockpiling, proliferation, and use of chemical weapons.

On July 13, 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Syria had begun to move pieces of its chemical weapons arsenal out of storage facilities. One anonymous government official was quoted as saying, “This could set the precedent of WMD being used under our watch. This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.” The Syrian government responded to the report with a denial and a deflection:

“This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue. If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can’t they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move toward the political solution?”

Ten days later, the Syrian government ramped up the rhetoric with a veiled threat to use chemical weapons against foreign military forces that might intervene in Syria: “‘Any stock of W.M.D. or unconventional weapons that the Syrian Army possesses will never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances,’ a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said at a news conference shown live on Syrian state television…‘These weapons are made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.’”

In early August, President Obama addressed these concerns with a surprise appearance at a regular daily White House press briefing. The Syria issue was not the primary reason for his appearance, and in fact much of the press conference dealt with pressing issues of his campaign against Mitt Romney in the looming November 2012 presidential election. However, toward the end of the briefing, NBC White House Correspondent Chuck Todd asked the for the president’s comments on the Syria situation. President Obama responded:

Obviously this is a very tough issue. I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down. So far, he hasn’t gotten the message…at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant.

What we’ve said is, number one, we want to make sure we’re providing humanitarian assistance, and we’ve done that to the tune of $82 million, I believe, so far. And we’ll probably end up doing a little more because we want to make sure that the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are fleeing the mayhem, that they don’t end up creating — or being in a terrible situation, or also destabilizing some of Syria’s neighbors.

The second thing we’ve done is we said that we would provide, in consultation with the international community, some assistance to the opposition in thinking about how would a political transition take place, and what are the principles that should be upheld in terms of looking out for minority rights and human rights. And that consultation is taking place.

I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, 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. That would change my equation.

Todd followed up by asking, “So you’re confident it’s somehow under — it’s safe?” referring to the chemical weapons situation. President Obama responded:

In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident. What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.

With those words, the president ended the press conference.

We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.

President Obama speaks to reporters at the White House on August 20, 2012

In December 2012, the issue resurfaced. There were reports that the Syrian military had once again moved the chemical weapons. A key concern for U.S. officials was that this new movement was accompanied by activities that suggested “some potential chemical weapon preparation.” One senior Israeli official added without elaboration, “We are seeing a kind of action we’ve never seen before.”

Through the final five months of 2012, the U.S. had been making plans for how to secure the chemical weapons stockpiles in the event of an intervention. In November, the Pentagon reported to President Obama and his administration officials that it might require upwards of 75,000 troops just to neutralize the weapons. One senior military official noted the challenges: “The problem is that you can’t just pick this stuff up and ship it out of the country.” The possibilities of leakage and contamination required the weapons to be destroyed in place. The process would be lengthy, dangerous, and the sites would need to be secured by ground forces throughout.

Despite the challenges associated with intervention, the chemical weapons issue was starting to create domestic pressures for the newly re-elected President Obama. Republican Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, was quoted as saying:

“We are not doing enough to prepare for the collapse of the Assad regime, and the dangerous vacuum it will create. Use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be an extremely serious escalation that would demand decisive action from the rest of the world.”

Amidst this pressure, the Obama administration doubled down on its red line statement from the previous August. In a press briefing on December 3, White House press secretary, Jay Carney stated:

As the opposition makes strategic advances and grows in the strength, the Assad regime has been unable to halt the opposition’s progress through conventional means, and we are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

And as the President has said, any use or proliferation of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cross a red line for the United States. The Assad regime must know that the world is watching and that they will be held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons, or fail to meet their obligations to secure them.

That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed:

“This is a red line for the United States. I am not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice it to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”

A European official noted that these threats were “deliberately vague to keep Assad guessing.”

Crossing the Line…?

The town of Khan al-Assal in Aleppo Province, Syria. Site of the attack on March 19, 2013

On the morning of March 19, 2013, the town of Khan al-Assal in Aleppo Province, Syria was hit with a rocket. The ground shook, and some locals believed they had experienced an earthquake, until a powdery pink smoke began wafting through the streets.

Victims were mostly women and children. While lying on a stretcher in an Aleppo hospital, one small girl said to a reporter, “My chest closed up. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe… we saw people falling dead to the floor. My father fell, he fell and now we don’t know where he is. God curse them, I hope they die.” A man in a green surgical mask, who said he had been helping to evacuate the casualties, said, “It was like a powder, and anyone who breathed it in fell to the ground.”

Was this a chemical weapons attack? Even before any actors had a chance to examine and assess the events, the blame game started. The Syrian government accused the rebels of using chemical weapons against regime forces. Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, said his government would send a letter to the U.N. Security Council “calling on it to handle its responsibilities and clarify a limit to these crimes of terrorism and those that support it inside the Syrian Arab Republic.” He warned that the violence that had engulfed Syria was a regional threat: “This is rather a starting point from which (the danger) will spread to the entire region, if not the entire world.”

The rebels, on the other hand, pointed the finger in the other direction. A senior rebel commander and spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo, Qassim Saadeddine, denied the allegations made by the government, instead blaming Assad’s forces for the chemical strike. “We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents,” he told Reuters by telephone from Aleppo.

Some even accused the rebels of using chemical weapons on innocent civilians, noting that it might be advantageous to do so if they could make it look like a state perpetrated act. It might be enough to increase outside aid or maybe draw the international community into the conflict in a more helpful way. Even though the rebels had recently seized the area, the attack happened in a pro-Assad part of the town, a fact that state media were quick to exploit. Both Al-Ikhbariya TV station and SANA news ran footage of victims’ testimonies, and Syrian information minister Omran al-Zoubi claimed that rebels had used “poisonous gases” on innocent civilians.

The rebels, of course, denied this allegation too. A rebel who identified himself as Yassin Abu Raed said there were at least 40 cases of suffocation in the area and several deaths. But he could not confirm details because he said the casualties were being taken to a government-controlled hospital in Aleppo. He said it did not make sense for the rebels to fire a chemical weapon at an area they had recently seized, and accused the government instead. “Why would the Free Syrian Army bomb themselves with a chemical weapon?” he asked.

The U.S. and the entire international community spent the first few weeks attempting to get a handle on exactly what happened. However, the facts and details of the event were shrouded in ambiguity. Claims made by sources at the attack, for both pro-Assad and rebel accounts, could not be independently verified. The photographs displayed on state news did not show signs of a chemical attack, such as burns to the skin. Many of the accounts from rebel leaders came 2nd or 3rd hand, because the attack happened in a pro-Assad neighborhood, and most of the victims blamed “the terrorists” which is Assad’s preferred term for the rebel fighters in Syria. Several unverified Twitter accounts made by people claiming to be in the area spread virally.

Confusion and Pressure

U.S. Sen. John McCain tells CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the United States must take action in Syria. April 25, 2013

In the midst of the confusion over whether the red line had or had not been crossed, a number of individuals and groups were calling for more and stronger U.S. action. Senators from both parties put pressure on the Obama Administration to step-up plans for intervention. Carl Levin (D-MI), chaired a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19, and called for strikes on the Assad regime’s military facilities and for a no-fly zone to be imposed over the country. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), asked the Supreme Allied Commander, James Stavridis, if NATO had plans for military operations inside Syria. “We are looking at a wide range of operations, and we are prepared, if called upon, to be engaged as we were in Libya,” Stavridis replied. McCain was also growing increasingly vocal about the need for the United States to intervene in the situation. U.S. House of Representatives Member Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, made a statement on March 19 that there was a “high probability” of chemical weapons use in Syria.

When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking at potentially even more horrific scenes than we’ve already seen in Syria.

For its part, the White House continued to proceed with caution. Press Secretary Jay Carney commented on the events in Aleppo Province saying,

We’re looking carefully at allegations of chemical weapons use.” He also said that the administration was “deeply skeptical” about the Syrian government claims that rebels were responsible for the attack. President Barack Obama, speaking from Jerusalem at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 20 said, “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer. When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking at potentially even more horrific scenes than we’ve already seen in Syria.

Around the world, the reaction was a similar mix of skepticism and resoluteness in the face of a potential attack. Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the UN, told reporters, “Clearly if chemical weapons were used then that would be abhorrent and it would require a serious response from the international community.” The Assad regime’s most powerful international ally, Russia, said it was taking the government of Syria’s claims very seriously. “The use of chemical weapons by the opposition is an extremely dangerous development,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

On March 21, tensions over the Syrian conflict erupted at a UN Security Council meeting, where French ambassador Gerard Araud said that no concrete proof of chemical weapons use by either side had been produced. He told reporters that most of the 15 Security Council members wanted to send a formal letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that would launch an independent investigation as to whether or not chemical weapons had been used. During the meeting, the nations of Britain, France, and America called on the UN General Assembly to make an inquiry regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But Russia insisted that only the Syrian government’s request for an inquiry into rebel use of the weapons be investigated. UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said a written request had been received from Damascus “and it is being studied.”

The next day, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the Syrian regime’s call for an inquiry into whether or not rebel forces had used chemical weapons was to be investigated. “My announcement should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity,” the secretary-general said. “The international community needs full assurance that chemical weapons stockpiles are verifiably safeguarded.”

By mid-April 2013, credible claims of chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians were levied against the Assad regime by Israel, Britain and France. Israeli Brigadier General Itai Brun said at a press conference in Tel Aviv on 23 April that the Syrian government “has increasingly used chemical weapons. The very fact that they have used chemical weapons without any appropriate reaction is a very worrying development, because it might signal that this is legitimate.” He expressed confidence that after a month of investigations their conclusions were concrete. To much of the international community, it seemed only a matter of time before “the sleeping giant” that is America would be awakened, and a military response of some sort would soon follow.

Letter from U.S. Senators to President Obama on April 24, 2013.

But it was April 25 before the US publicly acknowledged that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. The acknowledgement came in the form of a letter to the bipartisan group of U.S. Senators that had been most outspoken on the issue. On April 24, this group of Senators, led by Carl Levin, publicly co-authored a letter to President Obama seeking the administration’s “response in unclassified form as quickly as possible to the following question: Has the Assad regime — or Syrian elements associated with, or supported by, the Assad regime — used chemical weapons in Syria since the current conflict began in March 2011?”

The Obama Administration’s reply the following day was the first occasion when the US publicly acknowledged that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. However, the letter was less “shock and awe” than many expected, and instead it gave a decidedly muted “wait and see” response to the news.

President Obama’s response to Senator Carl Levin and other U.S. senators. April 25, 2013

President Obama did not make a public address on the issue, but he enlisted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who was traveling in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the time. He read his statement aloud and did not take any questions afterwards:

This morning, the White House delivered a letter to several members of Congress on the topic of chemical weapons use in Syria. The letter, which will be made available to you here shortly, states that the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.

As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours, and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue.

We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime. As the letter states, the President has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable.

The United States has an obligation to fully investigate — including with all key partners and allies, and through the United Nations — evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria…. As I’ve said, this is serious business — we need all the facts.

We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons…the President has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable…this is serious business — we need all the facts.

This need to have all the facts was as much about politics as it was prudence. Looming in the background to these investigations was the recent U.S. history with trying to gather intelligence on WMD. In the run up to the Iraq War in 2003, the U.S. based its argument for invasion on Saddam Hussein’s history of using WMD and intelligence indicating the development and movement of greater WMD stockpiles. Very soon after the war started, it became clear that much of this intelligence was flawed. Critical of the Bush Administration on this issue, the Obama Administration was determined not to make the same types of mistakes in Syria. One senior U.S. defense official summarized these concerns, telling reporters amidst a discussion about intelligence on Syria’s WMD: “We have seen very bad movies before.”

For his part, President Obama remained cautious about both the evidence of chemical weapons use and his response. “We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them…We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened.” On the U.S. response he added, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts…If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

President Obama holds a press conference on April 30, 2013.

As the month came to a close, a Syrian army defector was interviewed by the news channel Al Arabiya. Brigadier Zaher Al-Saket was described as the “former head of chemical warfare in the 5th division.” He was adamant about the regime’s use of chemical weapons:

“The regime used sarin gas on three occasions, and I am increasingly afraid that they will use agents more powerful than sarin…In Utaybah, near the Damascus international airport, the regime used sarin gas three times, because it is close to the airport. The next time chemical weapons were used was in Khan Al-Assal. First, they used incapacitating agents, and then they used lethal agents, because the F.S.A. forces had managed to reach the military academy, which is the main regime stronghold.”

“A Lot of Options on the Table”

At the end of April 2013, President Obama was staring straight at three realities:

1. Best estimates indicated that 90,000 people had been killed in the Syrian civil war since its inception in 2011.

2. There was still a great deal of confusion about exactly what had happened with respect to WMD. Had chemical weapons actually been introduced into the conflict? If so, which side had used them? Or had both used them? What quantities were used? How many casualties were there? Did the answer to these questions cross the red line the president had rhetorically established on numerous occasions in late 2012 through early 2013?

3. The pressure on the president to do something more was increasing. However, so was the pressure to stand pat.

In this context, the president had a number of options and seemed to be giving serious consideration to each of them. “There are a lot of options on the table, and they’re generally carrying equal weight at the moment,” noted a senior administration official. These options covered the full spectrum of activities from diplomatic to military.

First, the president could essentially do nothing — or at least nothing beyond what was already being done. President Obama had stated from the beginning of the conflict that President Assad had overstepped his authority and that he needed to step down. Around this time, some scholars and pundits were pointing out that one of the advantages to standing relatively still on this issue would be that it would force Iran and others in the Middle East to spend key resources on the issue, thereby weakening their relative power. Others pointed out that the U.S. could employ a strategy of “buck-passing,” allowing Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others to take greater steps to deal with the issue. Finally, there were those that argued for caution simply because the true intentions of the Assad regime and the ultimate outcomes of any intervention were unknowable or at least very difficult to predict with any certainty.

Diplomatically, the president had a number of small but nonetheless important options. He could certainly increase the tone of his rhetoric. Much of this could, of course, be directed at the regime specifically, and he could continue to offer rhetorical support for the rebels. However, President Obama also had the option of being more forceful with Russia. From the beginning of the conflict, the Russians had been allies of the Syrian regime and were making it difficult to make much progress on the issue in the United Nations.

A more direct approach would involve providing more aid to the Syrian opposition and key civil society groups. Here, the president could opt for a small step involving the greater amounts of nonlethal aid such as food. Since the start of the civil war, the U.S. had provided $127 million in such aid. Beyond this, the president could opt to assist the rebels with more lethal forms of aid, choosing to directly transfer weapons, ammunition, armor, and other military equipment.

Finally, President Obama could choose to directly involve U.S. forces in the conflict. A number of members of Congress had called for the U.S. to lead, and Senator John McCain, in particular, referred to President Obama’s reluctance in the face of Syrians “being massacred as we speak” as “disgraceful and shameful.” The Israelis were also beginning to ratchet up the pressure for action. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Zev Elkin, was quoted as saying, “There is a question here of when you set a red line, do you stand behind it?” Most of these voices were pressing the U.S. to use its air power to initiate no-fly zones. No-fly zones take away a key strategic advantage that governments often have over rebel groups in civil wars, as they can no longer conduct air-based attacks with relative impunity. A no-fly zone had been employed just a couple of years earlier in the relatively brief civil war in Libya which resulted in the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power. McCain summarized this tactic saying that the plan would be to “provide a safe area for the opposition to operate and to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to the people in the resistance who we trust.” In this case, however, it appeared that pulling off a successful no-fly zone would be much more costly than it was in Libya. One set of estimates indicated that a no-fly zone over Syria would require “hundreds of aircraft, based at sea an in nearby countries, and cost as much as $1 billion a month.” And of course, once U.S. military forces are involved in the air, the question becomes whether ground forces are necessary. Certainly, a ground invasion was one of the president’s options as well.

At the end of April 2013, the American people seemed to be divided about using American military forces in Syria. A Pew survey taken at the end of April, showed mild support for U.S. military action in Syria if it could be shown that chemical weapons had been used, with 45% favoring the use of force under those conditions, 31% opposing, and 23% with no opinion.

Given all of this, what should President Obama do?

President Obama addresses the nation from the Rose Garden of the White House. August 31, 2013.

Part B: The Decision

April-June 2013: A Decision to Arm Rebels

Between the end of April and the middle of June the Obama administration was relatively silent on the Syria issue as they sought greater clarity on exactly what happened on March 19. While the administration remained silent, the fighting intensified. On May 19, the Syrian government launched a major assault on the city of Qusair, a city on the Syrian border with Lebanon that had been a strategic stronghold for the rebels. Reports of the fighting noted that Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, allied with the Syrian government, participated in the attack. Rebels reported shells were dropping at a rate of 75 to 100 per minute for over two hours, and some referred to the attack as one of the most intense of the two-year war. The U.S. officially reacted by claiming that this was all part of the “seesaw” nature of the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the gains made by Assad forces were “very temporary.”

On June 4, the French government announced that it was “certain” that sarin, the nerve agent, had been used in Syria. The United Nations added its own report noting that its investigators had “reasonable grounds” to believe that chemical weapons had been used.

The United States’ own official announcement did not come until June 13. In a statement by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, the administration announced:

Our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year. Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information. The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete. While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades. We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons. We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.

As part of this same announcement, Rhodes announced that the U.S. would be ramping up its military assistance to the rebels:

Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks. This effort is aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the SMC, and helping to coordinate the provision of assistance by the United States and other partners and allies. Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC. These efforts will increase going forward.

Yet, over the next two months, it became clear that providing increased aid to the rebels was not a straightforward proposition. First, there were reports that half of the non-lethal aid that had been promised well before the U.S.’ June 13 announcement had not actually made it to the rebels. As even non-lethal aid was shipped, the various rebel recipient groups needed to be vetted, and the administration argued that this slowed the process considerably. Second, reports continued to emerge of heated exchanges within the Obama administration over whether the administration should be doing more to send Assad a message. Secretary of State John Kerry and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey reportedly got into a heated exchange over whether airstrikes should be used, with Kerry arguing for and Dempsey “demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.”

These debates foreshadowed things to come for the Obama administration. Things were about to get much more complicated.

August 21, 2013: A Much Bigger Attack

Ghouta, Syria, a suburb of Damascus. Site of the August 21, 2013 attack.

Panic and hysteria struck Eastern Damascus in the early morning hours on Saturday August 21. Beginning at 3 AM reports of a sarin gas attack flooded social media outlets. These reports came from civilians, doctors, activists, and human rights watch observers. Dozens of photographs and videos taken with mobile phones and personal small cameras revealed gruesome images; most notably women and children whom were visibly ill and in tremendous pain, but with no visible outer injuries. “Chemical weapons,” a man screams while looking at a row of dead children, holding his head. “We were hit with chemical weapons!

CNN’s report on the August 21, 2013 attack. Click picture to open site. Warning: video contains images that may be disturbing.

Initial reports to President Obama indicate that 1,400 men, women, and children are killed in the attack.

Just as in March, the blame game began almost immediately. The Syrian opposition immediately blamed the regime for the chemical attack, claiming that it had fired rockets with chemical gas into civilian areas. Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said such an attack by the regime would be preposterous, given that Assad’s forces are in the area as well. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad insisted it was a tactic by the rebels to turn around the civil war, which he said “they were losing.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a secular humanitarian aid organization, provided some of the first anecdotal evidence of chemical weapons use. On Tuesday August 24, MSF Director of Operations, Bart Janssens, noted “The pattern of events and the reported symptoms strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.” However, he quickly followed, “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.”

“No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons & crossing red line — we shouldn’t be surprised he’s using them again.”

Senator John McCain on CNN. August 22, 2013.

Many of those who criticized President Obama in April 2013, came out swinging. Senator John McCain said pointedly: “No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons & crossing red line — we shouldn’t be surprised he’s using them again.” In another interview with CNN, he elaborated, arguing that the United States’ credibility had suffered throughout the region:

When the president of the United States says that if he (Bashar al-Assad) uses these weapons, that it would be a ‘red line and a game changer’ he (Bashar al-Assad ) now sees that as a green light and that is the word of the president of the United States can no longer be taken seriously as it isn’t throughout the entire region.

For his part, President Obama was still acting cautiously. On the same day that MSF had given the confirmation, Obama reiterated his longstanding position on a CNN morning show, “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the administration had not reached a conclusion on who was responsible for the attack in Damascus. “We’re still assessing that.”

As new facts continued to pour in during the following few days, US intelligence analysts came to the conclusion that they could say — with some degree of certainty — that Assad had indeed used chemical agents against his own people. At this point, the administration appeared to swing an immediate about-face. A new decision had been made. In light of the recent evidence, the US would take action.

President Obama ordered a declassified report on the attack be released to the public. On Monday August 26, Secretary Kerry said,

The evidence is screaming at us that Assad used chemical weapons in Syria… Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.

Then he reiterated: “President Obama believes there must be accountability.”

“Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity…President Obama believes there must be accountability.”

US Navy warships already positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean maneuvered to within firing range of Damascus, all armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles. F-16 fighter jets in Jordan and Turkey were prepped for potential use. Israel called up Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Reservists to beef-up its presence along the contested border with Syria, the Golan Heights. The American media began airing possible missile strike scenarios, bringing in retired military personnel who had participated in Desert Storm I in Iraq. By midweek, the “drum of war” had gained a steady beat in America.

On Wednesday August 28, delegates from Russia and China ceremoniously walked-out of a UN Security Council meeting, where Britain asked for a UN resolution to authorize the use of force in Syria. Both Britain and France had become convinced that swift, decisive action must be taken against the Assad regime. Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague said, “It is time the United Nations Security Council shoulders its responsibility on Syria, which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do.” He also stated, “We are clear that…if there isn’t agreement at the United Nations, then we still have a responsibility; we and other nations still have a responsibility.” Meanwhile, the rest of the world held its breath, preparing for what seemed like an imminent Western alliance attack against the Syrian regime.

The concensus was that the U.S. military would lead strikes on Saturday, August 31.

The Redcoats Are (Not) Coming

On Thursday August 29, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who had been a staunch public supporter of Obama’s recent decision to intervene militarily in Syria, put forth a vote in his Parliament on whether or not Britain had a legal cause to intervene in Syria without a UN resolution.

Click the photo to watch the entire debate in the House of Commons

Members of his own party and of the opposition, voted ‘no’ (285 to 272). This unprecedented action marked the first time in British history that the government was denied military action by parliament. The reasons given by MP’s were varied, but the most prominent was the recent memory of British forces joining with America’s in the decade long intervention and occupation of Iraq. This military action, viewed as disastrous by most Britons, was carried out without a UN resolution. Phillip Hammond, British Defense Secretary said after the vote, “I don’t think it is anything to do with the Prime Minister, I think it is to do with the legacy of experience.” The vote came just hours after Prime Minister Cameron had given an order for British fighter jets to be sent to the area.

Now faced with the challenge of intervention in Syria without their strongest ally, the Obama administration once again seemed to pivot slightly, from decisive action to coalition building. Although not everyone in the administration had the same message in the wake of the “British defection.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel said on Friday August 30, “Every nation has a responsibility to make their own decisions, and we respect that of any nation. In spite of the British decision, it remains the goal of the Obama administration that any decision be an international collaboration.” But one White House official said on the very same day, “We care what they think. We value the process. But we’re going to make the decision we need to make,” the official also said unilateral action was “a possibility.” Either way, it was clear that President Obama was having second thoughts.

On Friday August 30, President Obama called Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey and asked him to consider the consequences of an alternative course of action. Obama asked General Dempsey to consider whether a delay would negatively impact the U.S.’ ability to be effective with its military options. He asked the general to report back to him in the morning.

On the following morning, Saturday, August 31, President Obama summoned Denis McDonough, who had become the president’s new Chief of Staff. He asked McDonough to take a walk with him, and they headed out around the south lawn of the White House grounds. They walked in circles for 45 minutes, discussing a new idea. In an attempt to get domestic political “buy in,” the president wanted to put the matter to a vote of Congress.

Later that morning, President Obama pitched the idea to his full team of advisors. Most accounts of the meeting indicate that many in the room were not happy. Their opinion was that if the president were to formally lose such a vote in Congress, it would destroy his political capital. Nonetheless, the president held firm. Later that afternoon, he made a televised statement from the White House Rose Garden:

Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets into highly populated areas of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place…This attack is an assault on human dignity; it also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders…It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm…After careful deliberation I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention, we would not put boots on the ground. Instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I am confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons; deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out.

But, having made my decision as commander-in-chief based on what I am convinced is in our national security interests. I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example; as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That’s why I’ve made a second decision, I will seek authorization for the use of force, from the American people’s representatives in Congress. For the last several days we’ve heard from members of congress who want their voices to be heard, I absolutely agree… they will schedule a conference and a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.

A Tentative Deal

After the Senate and House Foreign Intelligence Committees spent two days publicly questioning high-ranking members of the State and Defense Departments regarding their plan of action in Syria, a Joint Resolution was formally presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday September 3. The next day, committee members voted to enact the resolution (10–7) with one senator voting ‘present’. Thus giving authorization from one house of the US Congress to President Obama to act. The vote had bipartisan support, with 7 Democrats and 3 Republicans saying yes. But also bipartisan disapproval, with 2 Democrats and 5 Republicans voting no. The senator who voted ‘present’ was a Democrat.

However, before the resolution could be voted on in the larger Senate or the US House of Representatives, the Syrian government offered a deal. Acting on a plan initially proposed by their Russian allies, the Syrian government offered to turn over control of its chemical weapons stockpiles to a team of international monitors and immediately join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

In a televised speech to the nation that was originally intended to justify the need for military action to a very skeptical American public, President Obama used the Syrian offer to delay the Congressional vote. The President said: “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.” Secretary Kerry added a note of caution testifying about the deal to the House Armed Services Committee: “It has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic.”

On September 11, 2013, the United Nations confirmed that it had received Syria’s formal application for membership in the CWC. Five days later, the UN released its own report on the August 21 attacks, citing “clear and convincing evidence” of a sarin gas attack while stopping short of assigning blame.

The United States and the rest of the world continued to stand pat, waiting to see if a UN Security Council resolution could be produced that would add some enforcement capability to the agreement that the US and Russia had brokered on Syria’s weapons earlier in the week.



Jason Enia
Cases in Crisis & Disaster

Director, Center for the Study of Disasters & Emergency Management | Associate Professor, Political Science at Sam Houston State University