The Start of the World As We Know It

A review of Joby Warrick's "Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America's Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World"

If we could pinpoint the demise of the post-Cold War era to any one time and place, it’d be the Syrian town of Ghouta on August 21, 2013. That day, forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a sarin nerve agent attack against the Damascus exurb that left 1,400 people dead – more than 400 of them children. With this brazen act of mass murder, Assad and his regime set into motion the series of events that created the world as we know it today.

As Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick’s new book Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World makes clear, the Ghouta attack and – more importantly – the Obama administration’s bungled response to it continue to reverberate seven-and-a-half years on. His chronicle of the Syria chemical weapons crisis and its immediate aftermath joins books like Rania Abouzeid’s No Turning Back and Sam Dagher’s Assad or We Burn the Country as well as documentaries like The Cave as a testament to the torments faced by the Syrian people over the past decade. Above all, it shows how America and the world failed Syria and its people – and, ultimately, themselves – when it could have made a difference. That makes it a must-read for those liberals and progressives who say they want a foreign policy that stands up to autocrats around the world.

When it used sarin to murder scores of people in Ghouta that August, the Assad regime didn’t just shatter taboos against the use of chemical weapons – it kicked opened the door to a far more dangerous world. The Obama administration’s botched handling of the ensuing crisis gave Russia an opportunity to punch far above its weight overseas. It created a vacuum that terrorist groups like the Islamic State exploited to their own benefit. Most of all, it made sure that Syria’s civil war would drag on for years to come, displacing millions of people, exporting terrorism, and seeing the further use of chemical weapons.

All that becomes evident – if not necessarily explicit – in Warrick’s narrative, which focuses primarily on the chemical weapons crisis and its immediate aftermath. It’s also a story of exceptional technical achievement in a short period of time, as the U.S. military’s chemical weapons experts devised a way to quickly and safely neutralize chemical weapons and their precursors in record time. They also converted a merchant ship, the Cape Ray, to carry out the destruction of these weapons at sea – and successfully destroyed them when no other country proved willing to host the destruction on their own soil. The last third of Red Line reads like a thriller, dwelling on the Islamic State’s somewhat shambolic attempt to homebrew its own chemical weapons.

But the bulk of the book shines a light on an episode most Americans – and especially most of us who work on foreign policy for a living – would like to forget: the crisis that arose as a result of the Ghouta sarin attack. Starting in the middle of 2012, President Barack Obama began warning the Assad regime against using its 1,300-ton stockpile of chemical weapons – mostly nerve agents like sarin and VX – declaring that such attacks would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus” about military intervention in Syria. When Assad unleashed sarin on Ghouta in August 2013, Obama threatened military action only to reverse course and accept a Russian-brokered diplomatic deal that removed much – but not all – of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The bare facts don’t accurately capture the events described by Warrick, though. That starts with the brief accounts of sarin exposure he includes in the book. Anyone inclined to downplay or discount the horrors of chemical weapons on both individuals and communities would do well to read these passages. Decades after his accidental exposure to sarin in the late 1970s, one American chemical weapons researcher “could vividly recall every minute and each distinct sensation from his encounter with sarin: the extreme agony. The feeling of suffocation. The utter helplessness.” A Syrian activist recalled the post-attack scene in Ghouta: “Dozens of gas victims – men, women, and children – sprawled on the concrete… Some writhed in agony. Others lay still, apparently dead.”

Red Line also paints a damning portrait of widespread global indifference to the fate of Syrians and the blatant violation of the rules of war by the Assad regime. Warrick finds plenty of myopia to go around, with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon coming across as more worried about “tacitly enabling a military response” than the slaughter in Ghouta. According to Warrick, Ban “believed the United Nations was in the business of preventing conflicts, not starting new ones” – never mind that Syria’s civil war raged around the inspection team deployed to the country before the attacks. According to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, the very presence of UN inspectors – while valuable in independently verifying the Assad regime’s responsibility for the attack – deterred an immediate U.S. strike that may well have changed the course of the war.

A more sophisticated sort of evasion was at work in the Obama administration itself, one that went beyond President Obama’s own understandable reluctance to intervene in Syria’s civil war. Senior officials raised the perennial questions, “How does this end?” and “What would come next?” While these questions can be valuable when asked with an open mind, in recent years and decades they’ve come to serve as roadblocks to serious thought about the consequences of policy decisions and, ultimately, an excuse for inaction – even when inaction may be warranted. More often than not, these questions seem to be raised to induce paralysis rather than provoke careful deliberation about the likely consequences of a given policy decision and how the United States might mitigate or take advantage of them. 

In any event, President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional authorization for strikes against the Assad regime was likely overdetermined. Fueled in part by Obama’s own rhetoric surrounding the Iraq war, America experienced a brief episode of isolationism from the military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 to the start of the campaign against the Islamic State in 2014. As Warrick observes, the American public was “beyond apathetic” about Syria – a sentiment faithfully reflected by their elected representatives. For its part, the Obama White House worried that other dictators “would certainly take note” of a failed vote in Congress. Even though the deal struck to remove the bulk of Assad’s chemical weapons from Syria rescued the Obama administration from this particular predicament, it’s hard to imagine that anyone failed to understand what would likely have happened. Like previous bouts of isolationism, this one ended with the United States involved in a conflict it had striven to avoid - and at much less cost than predicted earlier.

More broadly, it’s difficult to underestimate the damage the Syrian chemical weapons crisis did to the global political system – the “rules-based liberal international order” so beloved by foreign policy wonks. The deal that resolved the immediate problem empowered a Russia that, as Warrick’s account makes plain, had little interest in implementing or enforcing. “Through it all,” he writes, “the Russians remained oddly indifferent about many particulars of the disarmament agreement” and, later on, “Moscow’s willingness to contribute to the execution of the agreement, meanwhile, was close to nil.”

In the end, it was largely up to the United States – with the help of the UK and Nordic allies like Denmark and Norway – to destroy much of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal at sea aboard the Cape Ray. But the Assad regime didn’t come completely clean about it is own chemical weapons program: just a year after the Cape Ray’s 2014 mission, investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found “curious gaps in the official records of Syria’s chemical weapons production, gaps that raised doubts as to whether Assad had truly given up on everything.” Assad’s violations of his chemical weapons commitments, Warrick notes, were “broader and deeper than anyone knew.” Indeed, OPCW inspectors “were unable to close even one of their investigations into Syria’s past weapons research.” An April 2017 sarin attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun finally left Assad’s violation of the 2013 deal beyond doubt.

What can we learn from this sordid episode? Warrick’s narrative provides some clues:

First, diplomacy isn’t magic and we should understand its limits when it comes to achieving the results we desire. “The Obama administration had been a big proponent of diplomacy,” Warrick argues, “though it had little to show for more than five years of effort” in Syria. The 2013 chemical weapons deal did destroy the bulk of the Assad regime’s arsenal, but it failed to do much else. From the vantage point of 2021, that diplomatic victory appears pyrrhic: Assad remains in power, still possesses some small stockpile of chemical weapons, and has not come completely clean about them. 

Second, force without diplomacy is pointless, wantonly destructive, and cruel – but diplomacy that fails to take force into adequate consideration tends to prove impotent. It wasn’t dogged diplomacy that forced Assad to part with most of his chemical weapons, it was the prospect of U.S. air strikes that threatened his own hold on power. When the United States put military force on the table after the Ghouta attack, Russia moved to rescue one its few remaining allies in the world. The relationship between force and diplomacy isn’t often so clear cut, but it does need to be kept in mind – especially as the Biden administration’s diplomatic push in Yemen gets underway. 

Third, we can’t necessarily expect other nations to be constructive partners – even when they help broker diplomatic agreements. As Warrick repeatedly observes, Russia expressed little interest in the details or implementation of the deal it struck with the United States to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Then as now, Moscow’s primary interest rested in propping up the Assad regime. As a result, there remains good reason to be skeptical of Russia’s diplomatic promises and its ability to deliver more widely. Moscow simply isn’t a reliable interlocutor.

In 2016, President Obama claimed to be “very proud” of his refusal to hit the Assad regime after its sarin attack on Ghouta. But for all the technical achievement and personal courage involved in the destruction of much of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, Warrick’s account makes clear that August 2013 wasn’t exactly one of America’s finest hours. While it’s apparent that the United States got something out of this episode, it also made plain that America would stand aside as one of the world’s worst dictators murdered his own population with some of the most brutal and indiscriminate weapons ever devised.

Ten years into Syria’s civil war, it’s a result that should be cause for introspection – not pride.