As his historic, if not quite transformative two-term presidency drew to a rather subdued close in the second half of 2016 and first few weeks of 2017, the apparent failure to impose a ‘red line’ he himself had delineated to Bashar Al Assad’s murderous regime in Syria kept getting thrown back at Barack Obama, as he did the rounds with a string of ‘farewell’ interviews to US media outlets.
To his credit, Obama remained admirably resolute through it all, maintaining a consistency and clarity in his answers (both of which seem to have gone out of fashion with the onset of the current administration in Washington). He was still convinced of the wisdom of his actions in 2013, including the declaration of the ‘red line’, which to many formed the issue’s genesis.
Yet the near unanimous verdict among observers is that this episode was a failure. Even the president’s sympathizers call the handling of the red line statement and its crossing a “debacle,” an “amateurish improvisation” or the administration’s “worst blunder.” They contend that Obama whiffed at a chance to show resolve, that for the sake of maintaining credibility, the U.S. would have been better off had the administration not pursued the diplomatic opening and used force instead. In this sense, a mythology has evolved around the red line episode—that if only the U.S. had used force, then it could have not only have addressed the chemical weapons threat, but solved the Syria conflict altogether.
It might be useful to recount what exactly happened back in 2013, in order to place the current president’s very divergent response to an almost identical offense in its correct context.
On August 21, 2013 the Syrian military had attacked rebel-controlled areas of the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, killing nearly 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children. Horrific video footage showing people with twisted bodies sprawled on hospital floors, some twitching and foaming at the mouth after being exposed to sarin gas, had ricocheted around the world. This brazen assault had clearly crossed the “red line” that President Barack Obama had enunciated a year earlier—that if Assad used chemical weapons, it would warrant U.S. military action.
In the end, however, the threat of military action and a surprise offer by Russia ended up achieving something no one had imagined possible: the peaceful removal of 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons.
By October 2013, without a bomb being dropped, the Bashar Assad regime had admitted having a massive chemical weapons program it had never before acknowledged, agreed to give it up and submitted to a multinational coalition that removed and destroyed the deadly trove. From my perspective at the Pentagon, this seemed like an incontrovertible, if inelegant, example of what academics call “coercive diplomacy,” using the threat of force to achieve an outcome military power itself could not even accomplish.
If the aim was to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capability completely, we would have maybe “punitive and preventive strikes against IDF, against military, trying to eliminate as many as possible of the aircraft that could be used to deliver chemical weapons, followed by the imposition of a no-fly zone to keep the remainder of his air force grounded, and a threat to strike again should he use ground-based weapons to launch chemical strikes in the future would also be in the works,” according to a former Obama admin official.
“Assad retains 100 percent of his mass murder delivery systems,” Fred Hof, President Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, told me. “If he concludes — as he did a year ago — that all he needs to do is observe a time out on using the really strong chemical munitions, then the strikes will go down in history as empty gestures.”
The new strikes are meant to persuade Assad not to order more attacks like Douma. The problem is that the Syrian dictator has every incentive to keep doing so until the war is won — and to bet Trump wouldn’t be willing to actually take on his regime directly.
The overnight attack by three Western forces targeted Syria from all angles, with ships and submarines firing from the Red Sea, North Arabian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean and jets which took off from Cyprus, France and, reportedly, Qatar.
Addressing the media in Virginia, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr, the director of joint staff, said he would pick three words to describe the attack: “Precise, overwhelming and effective”.
He said Syria had launched 40 surface-to-air missiles in an attempt to shoot the allied weapons down. Meanwhile, the French scrambled Mirage and Rafale fighter jets for their part in the Syrian airstrikes together with four frigate warships, launching a total of 12 cruise missiles.
The multi-purpose Rafale is used for reconnaissance, ground support as well as air strikes. It is capable of carrying missiles of a similar capability to the Storm Shadows used by the UK.
Alongside the Rafale, France deployed its supersonic Mirage 2000 fighter jets - which have a maximum speed of Mach 2. Both jets have the capacity to carry missiles capable of reaching their Syrian targets without entering Syrian airspace, but that most of them had been fired after the last Syrian target had already been destroyed.
The three bases targeted were the Barzah Research and Development Centre in greater Damascus, the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Storage Facility, west of Homs, and the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker Facility, just more than four miles from the storage facility.
The Americans deployed their B-1B Lancer bombers for the strike and also launched missiles from the Ticonderoga-class cruiser Monterey, the Virginia-class submarine John Warner, and two other warships.
In total, the US launched 66 Tomahawk missiles, and 19 joint air-to-surface stand-off missiles. Nicknamed “the Bone”, the B1-B is capable of carrying the most weapons of any bomber in a modern air force. It is prized for its speed, manoeuvrability and long range.
Like the jets deployed by France and Britain, the B1-Bs would not have been required to cross into Syrian airspace to strike. Earlier this month, the US Air Force released footage of two B-1Bs arriving at the Al Uldeid air base in Qatar.
The Barzah facility was hit by 76 US missiles in total, the storage facility was hit by 22 weapons from all three nations and seven French missiles fell on the bunker.
Earlier, Russia had claimed its Syria’s Cold War era air defence system shot down 71 of the missiles launched by the US, Britain and France in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s attack on civilians in Douma last Saturday (April 7).