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On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry told the audience at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum that the events of August 2013—when Obama reneged on his intent to bomb Syrian military sites in response to the Ghouta Chemical Massacre—have been “misinterpreted.”
But it is hard to understand what, exactly, critics have gotten so wrong in interpreting the event. When forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad murdered over 1,000 civilians using chemical weapons, President Obama opted to put the decision on whether to punish Assad to a Congressional vote that was doomed to fail from the beginning. Since the start of the conflict there have been at least 169 documented chemical attacks, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). UN Security Council Resolution 2118 of September 2013 was intended to bring about the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. And yet, 77% of the chemical attacks through 2015 occurred after this resolution.
Obama himself established the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” in the spring of that year. And the passing of that “red line” absent any response remains a critical juncture which may well have set the trajectory of the Syrian conflict towards the intractable crisis we witness today. Today, nearly 6 years into the conflict, there is little doubt that President Obama searched for any way out of getting involved in Syria outside of countering ISIS. And with the Security Council resolution, Russia offered him a backdoor out. Kerry claims that the threat of military force pressured Russian President Vladimir Putin to make Assad hand over his chemical weapons stockpile. But by that that logic, the lack of the threat of force allowed for continued violations of Resolution 2118, or the continued Russian and Syrian government attacks on hospitals, or the massacre of Aleppo, for instance. By ignoring his own “red line,” President Obama gave perpetrators of mass atrocities and war crimes a green light in Syria and elsewhere despite clear international humanitarian law.
From his comments on Sunday, one has to wonder whether Secretary Kerry is the last person remaining in Washington who actually believes in the toothless and rudderless diplomacy with which he has been tasked. Far more likely, Kerry has been sold on the lie that his job is to be a prop for White House’s strategic communication, dutifully pressing the fiction of Obama’s national security team that the United States is positively engaged in Syria. With a straight face, Kerry tells a foreign policy and Middle East-savvy audience that “We got a better result out of not doing [bombing Assad].” Doctors in Aleppo and Idlib who have treated patients of toxic gas attacks containing chlorine would tell him otherwise. He knows this. After all, Kerry true feelings were all too clear in an audio leak from a meeting with Syrian humanitarian and civil society workers on the sidelines of the UN Refugee Summit this past September. On the tape, published by the New York Times, an unguarded Kerry says “I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost the argument.”
No one at the Saban Forum envies Secretary Kerry’s position. He clearly attempted to be the voice of reason to a Commander-in-Chief who instead relied on voices in his inner-circle who only validated his own thinking. The views of foreign policy lightweights won out over the strong experience of Kerry, Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta who all argued for stronger engagement in Syria during their tenures in the Obama administration. That is not Kerry’s fault, but he should not now accept that his role is to whitewash the president’s Middle East legacy until Syria becomes the Trump administration’s problem from hell.
As Kerry told those Syrian activists in New York, “The problem is the Russians don’t care about international law, and we do.” But if the Obama administration cared about international law, they would have defended it against the barbarities of the Syrian government and Russia. UNSC Resolution 2118 contains an Article VII provision that leaves the door open for military enforcement in the event of Syrian government violations of the agreement. But despite clear violations, the lack of enforcement on this makes it as empty as other abandoned red lines.
At Saban, Kerry claimed that the United States is “on the right course…Not just militarily with our presence and our potential use of force, but more importantly right now, our ability to try to deal with these countries’ governance and their ability to be able to address these young people and the possibilities of the future.” But Kerry likely knows that among those attending the Saban Forum—and indeed most in the Washington foreign policy community across the political spectrum—essentially none would defendant Obama on Syria. Not after nearly 6 years of war, with over half a million dead, millions more displaced, and a security vacuum that is now filled with violent extremism and will now require decades of USAID funding for aid and development. The region is spiraling into disarray, with the United States never in a worse position to exert its leverage. Russia, which bombs hospitals and has helped destroy Aleppo before our very eyes, has charted its own authoritarian, genocidal future for Syria—and future which President-elect Trump seems all too eager to abide.