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Syria: The “Red Line” Dilemma

Syria: The “Red Line” Dilemma
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

As if the Syrian tragedy was in need of an escalation in horror, indications of the use of chemical weapons have become increasingly clear since the end of 2017. Chlorine was allegedly used on several occasions, notably in Eastern Ghouta and probably in Idlib.

We all remember that the United States and France, as early as 2013 when intelligence indicated that the Syrian army was preparing to make use of such weapons, drew a "red line" and promised to respond, were this threat to materialize. It did the following August, with a massive use of sarin, a neurotoxic agent, in Ghouta. We know what happened next: a negative vote in the House of Commons; Barack Obama’s turnaround; a French president isolated and unwilling to take action on its own.

"Instead of symbolically stopping the offensive of a regime that was in trouble at the time, the US decision, as well as the improvised "disarmament plan" that ensued, renewed Bashar al-Assad’s political legitimacy"

Instead of symbolically stopping the offensive of a regime that was in trouble at the time, the US decision, as well as the improvised "disarmament plan" that ensued, renewed Bashar al-Assad’s political legitimacy. The development of jihadist forces stems in part from the sense of abandonment felt by the opposition: the American retreat undeniably provided a springboard for Daesh. The United States’ reputation abroad was degraded. The Gulf countries questioned the effectiveness of the American protectorate, and Washington's influence in the Middle East was eroded. Yet, Mr Obama's decision did not, as he had hoped, have positive consequences on the political relations between the United States and Iran.

This American retreat - one of two turning points of the war, along with the 2015 Russian-Iranian intervention - may have had broader geopolitical consequences. A number of analysts and politicians - including François Hollande’s team - believe so. According to them, Vladimir Putin was encouraged to act in Ukraine; Iran and North Korea were emboldened in their provocative efforts since US  threats were no longer effective.

"So why not react today?"

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, although elected - each in his  own way – on platforms promising to “break” with  their predecessors, have reclaimed this red line concept. The former through the use of force in April 2017, after the Syrian regime used sarin once again, by destroying the base from which the strikes had been launched. The latter by drawing more clearly than his predecessor the French red line: Mr Macron declared in May, while receiving Vladimir Putin, that "any use of chemical weapons" in Syria "will result in reprisals and immediate response. A few weeks later, he announced that France would act "alone" if necessary.

So why not react today? France’s embarrassment is obvious, while on both sides of the Atlantic the press has recently mentioned the possibility of military action (it is the case in the Washington Post in the United States or in the newspaper L’Opinion in France). At the end of February, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and later Emmanuel Macron, had to address the journalists’ increasingly pressing questions. The Elysée then clarified the French position through a statement disclosing a conversation between Mr Macron and his American counterpart: "The President of the Republic (..) recalled that a firm response would be issued in case of proven use of chemical means resulting in the death of civilians, in perfect coordination with our American allies"(2 March).

These clarifications have shed light on current hesitations and uncertainties. First, if the military use of chlorine does in act amount to a “chemical weapon” under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, absolute certainty that it has been employed is harder to obtain than when it comes to neurotoxic agents such as sarin. Some of its symptoms on humans are indeed similar to those triggered by traditional explosions. Second, the shootings’ precise location is more complicated to determine when on-the-ground rather than aerial means are used, as seems to have been the case recently. Although some might argue that there is no military interest in using chemical weapons for the regime, as it is already winning the war, we should recall that the regime’s goal is elsewhere: chemical attacks are meant to terrify civilians and force them to flee. Third, for the same reason, the military objectives of potential retaliation are more difficult to determine than in the case of an aerial attack. Fourth, it is uncertain - despite some convincing testimonies - whether the use of chlorine has triggered any fatalities in the past months. Yet, such criterion is now included in Mr Macron’s “red line definition”, and probably in Mr Trump’s too. Finally, France would rather act along  with the United States: however, Mr Trump does not seems determined to take action, in spite of internal debates. The Pentagon merely states that it would be “very unwise” for the regime to use such means. 

These intricacies are perfectly understandable. And France is not inactive on the subject, as was demonstrated by its January 2018 initiative of a Partnership against the use of chemical weapons

They are however becoming less and less audible for Western opinions and foremost for Syria’s civilians. One could understand French expert Olivier when he said  on 8 March on France Info radio station that Mr Macron’s red line had become “invisible” and “drawn in the blood of civilians”. Furthermore,  “humanitarian access”, Mr Macron’s second 2017 red line, has not materialized in Ghouta despite France’s advocacy effort at the UN. 

"There is no competition in horror but France is right to particularly stigmatize the use of such means, which fail to differentiate fighters and civilians"

Moreover, traditional criticism over this type of red line adds up to preexisting doubts on the value of such commitments: drawing such a line is sometimes interpreted as a signal to the adversary that anything below that line is permitted. The red line would thus represent a carte blanche for the use of fuel explosives and other means of spreading terror. 

Reassessing the red line regarding chemical weapons and responding with  military means  to the Syrian regime when it is crossed - as soon as previously mentioned conditions have been met - is yet necessary. There is no competition in horror but France is right to particularly stigmatize the use of such means, which fail to differentiate fighters and civilians. Safeguarding the taboo of chemical weapons is also France’s responsibility, as it is the first country to have suffered from the use of such arms in the modern world, during WW1. It is also a depositary of the 1925 Geneva Protocol depositary and the initiator of the 1997 Convention on Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Even more so since Damas, unlike in 2013, is now a member of this Convention. 

This development was however not vain. The regime would have probably used sarin gas in far higher quantity would the West have failed to mobilize on this issue. In every field, deterrence  is to be regularly reiterated through speech and action. Taking action, even symbolically, would amount to sending a clear signal to every country tempted to use similar means. It would not be to “clear our conscience” or excuse our current inability. And even if it were the case, what is better: potentially saving a few lives or saving none at all? 

Beyond Syria and chemical weapons, current events emphasize that although the red line concept - whatever name it is given - is an indispensable dissuasion tool in the power balance between States, handling it is a difficult task, and we should concentrate on its execution.  

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