You are here

Red Lines and Syrian Chemical Weapons

Commentary, 26 April 2013
Americas, Middle East and North Africa
Evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime remains incomplete. But the Obama Administration’s confused signaling and ambiguous standards of evidence risk emboldening the Assad regime.

Evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime remains incomplete. But the Obama Administration's confused signaling and ambiguous standards of evidence risk emboldening the Assad regime.

 Syrian Soldier - Chemical Weapons Suit

A Whole Bunch of Red Lines

In a RUSI Briefing Paper published this week, Hugh Chalmers and I explored the elasticity of war-triggering red lines, and the advantages and disadvantages of keeping your adversary guessing. With Iran in mind, we warned that:

[A]ny red line that allows for such post-hoc or ad-hoc re-interpretation is unavoidably ambiguous and correspondingly more prone to being tested [...] As Scott Sagan notes, 'risk and deterrence go hand-in-hand as a consequence of commitment: a state cannot get the extra measure of deterrence that comes from making threats without also accepting some extra risk of having to implement that threat if deterrence fails'. Diluting that risk also dilutes deterrence.

As indications of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime appear to mount, President Obama faces an acute dilemma. He can exploit the flexibility of his own red line on this issue, but in doing so give the impression that the line will be endlessly re-interpreted to avoid any American military commitment.

This, in turn, risks sending a message to President Assad: chemical weapons use will not incur a cost, as long as (1) the circumstances of its use can be kept uncertain and (2) the scale limited. On the other hand, Obama is aware of the grave political and diplomatic repercussions of going to war if the evidence of chemical weapons use turns out to be embellished or fabricated, as it was in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq a decade ago.

Obama voluntarily adopted the language of red lines last summer: 'a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized', adding that 'that would change my calculus'. He neither defined 'a whole bunch' nor stated, explicitly, that he would use military force.

From Slam Dunk to 'Varying Levels of Confidence'

This week, the US intelligence community followed France, Britain and Israel in concluding, albeit 'with varying degrees of confidence', that Sarin gas had been used by the Syrian regime. According to a senior Western diplomat who spoke to the Financial Times, the evidence came from two separate samples taken from alleged victims on two different dates and locations. Wired magazine elaborated that these were blood samples and that they had been proffered by 'more than one organization'.

The White House specifically cited its concerns over 'chain of custody' of these samples, warning that 'we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions'. The implication is that at least elements of the US Intelligence Community have reason to doubt the reliability of the agents who transferred the samples to European custody in Jordan, and therefore cannot rule out the possibility of either fabrication or accidental contamination.[1]

A senior British official told the Financial Times that 'what the evidence does not tell us is things like the scale of use, the precise location and whether the Sarin was weaponised. We do not yet have that hard information which allows us to make a categorical statement that would be unchallengeable in the court of international public opinion'. This level of uncertainty is so great that, according to one report of a letter sent by Britain and France to the United Nations, 'neither country said it was certain that chemical weapons had been used'. What is clear is that the shadow of Iraq looms large over policymakers.

Outstanding Questions or Loopholes?

This raises at least three questions.

First, is it ever possible for a Western intelligence service to establish a reliable chain of custody of such samples in a warzone and, if not, can chemical weapons use in Syria ever be established with high confidence? The White House's letter to senators insisted that 'intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient', and that 'our standard of evidence must build on these assessments as we seeking to establish credible and corroborated facts. But such facts are only established through intelligence assessments, which almost always include areas of uncertainty.'

Second, if any attack is attributed to regime forces, can it realistically be attributed specifically to the regime's leadership? On 25 April, a US intelligence official told the New York Times that 'the White House must determine who used them and whether they were used deliberately or accidentally'.

Will the Administration assume that the Syrian forces' chain of command is operating as normal, and therefore that Assad himself and his leadership as a whole is collectively responsible? If the burden of proof is on those who wish to make such an assumption, then (1) is human and technical intelligence collection in Syria adequate for this purpose and (2) does this incentivise the Syrian leadership to craft deniable ways of issuing orders for chemical weapon use to subordinates and giving the appearance of autonomy?[2]

Third, the aforementioned senior British official mentions 'scale of use', echoing Obama's comments last summer on 'a whole bunch' of chemical weapons being the requisite quantity to breach the red line.

Does scale refer to intensity or frequency and, if the former, does that imply that repeated but low-intensity use over time would be tolerable? What scale of use is unacceptable, and is there a danger that acquiescence in smaller-scale use will lead to larger-scale use of the sort that occurred at Halabja in 1988?

The Problem with Re-interpreting Red Lines

These questions imply that answers exist; in truth, they are unlikely to have been formulated in advance, and the Administration is almost certainly constructing policy while events unfold.

The problem is not that the Administration has failed to go to war based on this fragmentary evidence; rather, it is that its confused signalling and ambiguous, nebulous criteria for evaluating infractions gives the impression that it wishes to adopt the most lax possible interpretation of, or altogether repudiate, its own red line.

They may be perfectly sincere in their cautious attitude towards what is clearly incomplete evidence: but in failing to state more clearly what would constitute sufficient evidence, they risk conveying - to Assad, and to others - that the bar will continue to be retrospectively raised, and so emboldening the Assad regime to continue using chemical weapons - if indeed it was responsible for the alleged attacks - in increments.

On Thursday, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), a US lobby group and the only organisation permitted by US law to send aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), claimed that two chemical weapon attacks occurred on 25 April in a strategically important suburb of Damascus. If such allegations proliferate - and if some are confirmed with the same varying degrees of confidence- will the Administration persist in demanding the same standard of evidence?

If the White House acknowledges that the red line has been crossed, it faces a further problem: any intervention designed to address the threat of chemical weapons is not necessarily the same type of intervention that effects regime change or changes the underlying military balance.

Moreover, the United States and others are coming to the conclusion that deposing Assad would no longer guarantee regime change or transition, but might instead produce a prolonged period of fratricidal intra-rebel fighting. That would leave the regime's chemical weapon stockpiles even more vulnerable than they are at present. Leaving them in place would be unacceptably dangerous in the context of a growing jihadist presence in Syria, destroying them through air strikes might disperse chemical agents, including over Jordan, and securing them in place might require a huge troop presence of the sort that is present seen as implausible.[3]

As France and Britain continue to press strongly for ending the European Union's arms embargo, the United States has opted for the diplomatic route: pressuring Assad to allow UN inspectors to evaluate the full range of allegations in concert with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The regime is resisting this, and inspectors would anyway struggle to collect evidence up to the exacting standards of the OPCW. If further allegations accumulate, American policy is unlikely to survive in its current form.


[1] Jeffrey Lewis speculates that 'for all we know, these two poor souls stumbled into sarin canisters while ransacking a liberated Syrian military sites', and Cheryl Rofer warns that 'samples can be faked from the start or adulterated somewhere along the line'

[2] Hugh Chalmers and I raise a very similar point with respect to the Iranian nuclear programme and the American red line. See our Briefing Paper, pp. 4-5.

[3] For details, see Paul Schulte's chapter, 'Syrian Chemical Weapons Stocks: A Choice of Risks and Evils', in RUSI's Syria Crisis Briefing from July 2012.


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research