The (invisible) Red Line

  Aleppo in ruins

Nearly three years into the devastating civil war which has rocked the Syrian state to its core, few objective facts can be ascertained by the casual observer. Recent peace talks in Geneva have seen government and opposition representatives simply talk past one another, while the pace of killing has actually increased since the beginning of the United Nations sponsored negotiations. The two sides and their assorted patrons have not agreed on how to proceed forward regarding a resolution to the conflict, and both belligerents disagree bitterly over the status of weapons of mass destruction. 

There remains, however, a single and constant truth in the conflict; the West—in particular, the United States—has suffered one of the most dire strategic losses in its foreign policy over the past thirty years.

President Obama’s stunningly myopic decision in August to forego the use of force in response to an obvious chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government (a clear violation of a “red line” he himself had set), has sparked the eruption of vast chains of unfavorable foreign policy outcomes for the United States. These poor results can broadly be grouped into three different conceptual categories: the obvious abdication of American goals in Syria, a loss for the global nonproliferation regime, and the resurgence of the Russian Federation.

At the “Friends of Syria” conference in April 2012, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unequivocally stated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go” as a precondition for any transitional government in Syria. The decision reflected the political zeitgeist of 2010, 2011, and 2012; strongmen around the region were coming under pressure and falling to popular movements. The conventional wisdom suggested that Assad, like Saleh, Qadaffi and Mubarak before him, would fall as a result of popular discontent and international condemnation. Indeed, France soon recognized the opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, and other Western nations soon began to follow suit.

However, the unanimous adoption of a Security Council resolution—mandating that Syria’s chemical weapons be collected and destroyed—represents an implicit but clear rejection of Secretary Clinton’s stated policy. The resolution explicitly deals with the Assad regime as the Syrian negotiating partner for the destruction of the country's WMD stockpile, ensuring that previous American calls for regime change now ring hollow.

How, then, does this equivocation on American objectives represent a failure?

 The president of the Syria...

While America has for years attempted to court the Syrian opposition, joining them in calls for Assad’s ouster, it has now rejected what was originally the ultimate goal of the movement. So then, what of America’s commitments to allies like Poland, Japan and South Korea, who all rely significantly on American promises of defense against armed attack by Russia and North Korea, respectively? Such a clear rejection of past promises is sure to cause consternation and hand-wringing in Warsaw, Tokyo and Seoul.

The issue of optics is critical in the consideration of the defeat of the Western-designed nonproliferation regime, which rose to prominence in the mid-nineties. In response to the hideous use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of both world wars, the Iran-Iraq war, and on Iraq’s own people during the reign of Saddam, East and West came together to form (primarily through the efforts of the US) the Chemical Weapons Convention. But as a result of President Obama’s decision to withhold force in Syria, this global norm of WMD non-use—not yet even twenty years old—has been grossly violated, with no consequences for the Syrian regime to bear.

Of course, defenders of the President would be quick to point to the so-called Kerry-Lavrov framework as evidence of diplomacy’s relative success in upholding the nonproliferation norm, and in illustrating a tough American stance. Such an assertion, unfortunately, is a hopelessly naïve interpretation of a spectacular foreign policy blunder. The “deal” itself was nothing more than an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary Kerrywho himself underscored how unrealistic it was, stating that the Syrians would have to give up their weapons by the “end of the week.”

The Syrian government, unsurprisingly, has adopted a bargaining mentality. Not only have fewer than five percent of Syria’s weapons left the country (where they have not yet been destroyed), but Syria will surely miss its June 30th target for the destruction of all of its weapons—a result of the earlier deadlines it has missed. This abrogation of America’s supposedly tough stance on proliferation has led nations like North Korea and Iran to watch this breakdown with glee. Not only is North Korea gearing up for a new round of provocations, but Iran also managed to exact a “deal” from the West which provides sanctions relief without rolling back a single aspect of Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, Iran is still even allowed to enrich uranium to low levels. The United States and the West have, then, seen Iran fall into the same caustic attitude towards proliferation as Syria—that of bargaining and empty promises.


The most dire and long-term defeat of the West in Syria, however, lies with the resurgence of the Russian Federation in the Middle East. With the adoption of the Russian-brokered “deal,” and its current unraveling, America has acknowledged Russia as a co-equal power in the Middle East, an accomplishment never managed by Russia’s Soviet and Imperial predecessors. With America’s acquiescence, Putin has provided an alternative to dictatorial regimes the world over: ally with Russia, and we will provide you with advanced weapons (as is the case with Iran), won't judge your form of governance, and will stand by you in your time of need. Given Putin’s gross violation of human rights at home—and his brazenly hypocritical New York Times op-edthe spread of Russian influence in the Middle East is in direct contravention of Western values of freedoms of press and expression, democratic governance, and a robust civil society.

By now, in fact, the situation is nothing short of a dramatic defeat for the West, and is not likely to be turned around any time soon. With any threat of force now completely off the table, and with no acknowledgement of a “plan b” for Western diplomats—given the failure of the Geneva talks—the situation looks to be a complete victory for Syria and Russia. The opposition will likely continued to be dominated by foreign fighters streaming in from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and jihadist groups; and the Free Syrian Army, unable to even agree to a negotiating agenda with the government, will likely founder. Such is the result of the dramatic, yet unnecessary, political error committed by the United States.