Despite the fact that they are banned, chemical weapons are still being used today. According to a French analysis, chemical weapons were used in at least 130 instances in Syria between October 2012 and April 2017 (Rebecca Hersman, “Resisting Impunity for Chemical-Weapons Attacks“, Survival 60, no. 2, p. 75). The two U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have reacted differently to major chemical weapons attacks in Syria. One made threats, did not consistently implement the threats and therefore lost his credibility; the other seized the opportunity, did not hesitate to take action, and used his “nice, new and smart” missiles. Neither of the presidents made an impression on the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
Back at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, it was well known in intelligence circles that Syria had one of the largest active chemical weapons programmes in the world. The Syrian Armed Forces had several hundred tonnes of mustard gas (a blister agent), as well as several hundred tonnes of the nerve agent Sarin and several dozen tonnes of VX (another nerve agent). These chemical warfare agents could be deployed using aircraft bombs, artillery grenades or missiles (République Française, “Synthèse nationale de renseignement déclassifié: Programme chimique syrien, cas d’emploi passés d’agents chimiques par le régime et l’attaque chimique conduite par le régime le 21 août 2013“, 02.09.2013, p. 3). It was the first time in a civil war in which one party to the conflict had such a large arsenal of chemical weapons. In this context, two main scenarios gave cause for concern: the use of chemical warfare agents by the Assad regime, especially in the event of its imminent collapse, and the proliferation by extremist groups (Mary Beth D Nikitin, Paul K Kerr, and Andrew Feickert, “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress“, Congressional Research Service, 30.09.2013.).
The situation got worse at the end of July 2012, when Damascus threatened to use chemical weapons in the event of an “external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic“. In response to a question posed by the journalist Chuck Todd, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed during a press briefing in August 2012 that he did not intend to begin a military intervention in Syria, but that a movement or the use of large quantities of chemical weapons could change this, and far-reaching consequences would follow. The use or proliferation of chemical weapons was not only concerning for the USA: it was also worrying for their allies in the Middle East.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. […] We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly. — Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps“, 20.08.2012.
Obama repeated this again in December 2012 when he addressed his threat of far-reaching consequences directly to Assad: “The use of chemical weapons is, and would be, totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” By August 2013, this “red line” had been confirmed several times by the U.S. government.
Obama had been rather naive in his hope of intimidating Assad and offering a deterrent against the use and proliferation of chemical weapons to non-governmental groups, such as Hezbollah . As far as the use of chemical weapons was concerned, Obama’s threats were in vain. The Syrian Armed Forces most likely deployed sarin on 19 March 2013 in Khan al-Asal (20 dead, 124 injured), 29 April 2013 in Saraqueb (1 dead, 10 injured) and on 21 August 2013 in Ghouta (355 dead, 3,600 injured) .
The attack on Ghouta could not be ignored by the U.S. government, especially because an early U.S. estimate was rather high, talking of over 1,400 dead (of which 426 were children). About a week after the attack, the U.S. government announced that it had solid evidence that the Syrian government had carried out the chemical weapons attack (Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais, “The Thick Red Line: Implications of the 2013 Chemical-Weapons Crisis for Deterrence and Transatlantic Relations“, Survival 59, no. 6, p. 85). The “red line” drawn by Obama around a year earlier had therefore apparently been clearly crossed, in anyone’s view. However, Obama was hesitant to implement the threatened consequences — the massive military attack by the U.S. Armed Forces which was anticipated never took place.
In the hope of intimidating Assad and by drawing the “red line”, Obama had backed himself into a corner because the unilateral use of military force without the approval of the UN Security Council was utterly contrary to his fundamental convictions. When the British parliament rejected a motion by British Prime Minister David Cameron at the end of August 2013, which had been intended to pave the way for British military involvement to punish the Assad regime, Obama’s concerns about falling into a trap by unilaterally taking military action were particularly pressing (Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine“, The Atlantic, April 2016). At the same time, this also opened up new scope for Obama: new, the U.S. Congress should decide about military retaliation in Syria. The corresponding bill was introduced to the U.S. Senate on 6 September 2013.
In a formal sense, the U.S. President, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, would not have required the approval of Congress to take such a limited action (Barack Obama, “Text of President Obama’s Remarks on Syria”, The New York Times, 31.08.2013). With the involvement of Congress, however, Obama was not only playing for time (and as time passed military retaliation became less likely): he was also able to shift responsibility to Congress, while at the same time taking himself out of the line of fire (Lewis and Tertrais, p. 79). As early as 4 September 2013, he qualified his statements about the “red line”. He defined and clearly showed whose credibility was at stake: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. […] My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line.” (Jonathan Allen, “Obama Reframes ‘Red Line’ Rhetoric“, Politico, 04.09.2013).
But before the bill made it to the U.S. House of Representatives, the situation changed: on 9 September 2013, the then Foreign Minister John Kerry answered questions from journalists during a visit to Great Britain. Asked by journalist Margaret Brennan what the Assad regime could do to avert a U.S. military strike, Kerry replied:
[Bashar al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously. — John Kerry, “Press Conference by Kerry, British Foreign Secretary Hague“, U.S. Departement of State, 19.12.2013.
This was not a well-thought out strategy, but a slip by Kerry, which incorrectly spread over the media as an U.S. ultimatum to Assad. This assessment is also underscored by a U.S. State Department statement that Kerry’s remark was merely rhetorical in nature.
Just a few hours later, with the agreement of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed the seizure and destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons, which led to the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” on 14 September 2013 (Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour, “Russia Calls on Syria to Hand over Chemical Weapons“, The Guardian, 09.09.2013). With its swift implementation and Syria’s immediate accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention, U.S. retaliation was definitely off the table. From a humanitarian point of view, this was an ideal solution which, by destroying (a large proportion) of Syrian chemical weapons, may have prevented things from becoming worse and effectively saved human lives. But even this was not enough for Assad to stop himself from using chemical weapons again.
However, Obama’s publicly flaunted inconsistent behaviour was fatal for the credibility of the USA and its influence in the Middle East. Finally dropped by the West, this sealed the fate of the “moderate rebels” in Syria and strengthened radical Islamist groups. In the medium term, the USA lost their influence in the Middle East to Russia. Russia was not only able to expand its armaments business in the Middle East: since then they have again been regarded as an influential player in this region. On the international stage, the impression spread that the USA was no longer prepared to intervene decisively on a military level when fundamental international norms were breached. This gave Russia additional room for manoeuvre, which Putin skilfully exploited in the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine in March/April 2014 and the Russian military operation in Syria from the end of September 2015 onwards (Lewis and Tertrais, p. 96f).
Officially, the chemical weapons declared by the Syrian government were destroyed at the beginning of January 2016. However, it is questionable as to whether all chemical weapons had been declared. Although Sarin attacks stopped from autumn 2013 until spring 2017, chlorine was used as a weapon in several cases from April 2014 onwards (“Fifth Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism“, UN Security Council, 13.02.2017). Although chlorine stocks do not have to be declared, their use as a weapon is contrary to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Finally, on 4 April 2017, the Syrian Armed Forces deployed Sarin again in the attack on Khan Shaykhun (around 100 dead, 27 of which were children, and around 200 injured) (Hersman, p. 76; “Seventh Report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism“, UN Security Council, 26.10.2017). It was the first such incident that had occurred during the term of U.S. President Donald Trump. As a power politician, it seemed clear to him that consequences had to follow in order to save the USA from further loss of face. On the morning of 7 April 2017 — just three days later — U.S. forces bombarded the Syrian-operated Shayrat Air Force base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, with 58 Tomahawks destroying 44 targets on the air force base (“ISI First to Analyze Shayrat Airfield Missile Attack“, ImageSat International, 05.11.2017). The air strike enabled Trump to set an example, to show determination and strength, and to clearly set himself apart from Obama’s politics. Interestingly, the air strike occurred during the two-day visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, and could also be understood as a demonstration of power against China.
Russia was informed in advance of the imminent air strike, which enabled the Syrian Armed Forces to bring some of their aircraft to safety. Although Shayrat is the second largest Syrian air force base, the U.S. air strike had no strategic consequences. Around 10 Syrian aircraft were destroyed, which were presumably mostly defective planes. In addition, 13 toughened aircraft protection structures, 10 weapon depots, 7 fuel tanks, 5 workshops and parts of 5 SA-6 anti-aircraft missile batteries were destroyed. Shayrat was defined as a target because it was from here that the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun took place. Nevertheless, no installations were destroyed that would have prevented a new chemical weapons attack from the air force base. According to National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster, the Sarin storage areas still on the air force base were deliberately not fired upon by Tomahawks to avoid the risk of poisoning civilians near the air force base (“Why Was Syria’s Shayrat Airbase Bombed?“, BBC News, 07.04.2017). The runway also remained intact, enabling the Syrian Armed Forces to land and take off from the base with their remaining Su-22s hours later.
Striking Syrian military bases is little punishment for the perpetrators, nor much justice or restitution for the victims. — Rebecca Hersman, p. 79.
The U.S. retaliation was basically ineffective as a deterrent. A good year later, the Syrian Armed Forces used chemical weapons in Douma (probably chlorine possibly in combination with Sarin, with 43 dead) (“Russia, Syria Trying To ‘Sanitize’ Chemical Attack Site, U.S. Says“, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 19.04.2018). This time, the US, together with France and Great Britain (hereinafter referred to as the “coalition”) bombed the Barzah scientific research centre, along with the Him Shinshar chemical weapons depot and its bunker with 105 cruise missiles. In order to exclude Russian victims, Russia was once again warned of this attack. According to the coalition, chemical weapons were being developed and manufactured in Barzah, but it seems unclear whether chemical weapons were also neutralised during the destruction of the three targets. Satellite photos showing the fire brigade in the immediate vicinity of the Barzah scientific research centre shortly after the air strike, and the absence of victims caused by the agents released make this rather doubtful, however.
For the coalition, the air strikes were not only a retaliatory action: they also provided the opportunity to test the capabilities of their cruise missiles. For the first time, France used its sea-based version (Missile de Croisière Naval; MdCN) of the French variant (SCALP) of the British Storm Shadow. Apparently, however, the operation did not go quite to plan: three MdCNs did not even leave their launchers, and it would appear that the three which were fired missed their targets by several hundred metres (Jean-Dominique Merchet, “La Marine a rencontré des ‘aléas technique’ lors du tir des missiles de croisière“, L’Opinion, 17.04.2018). There are different reports about the number of cruise missiles which hit their targets. According to the coalition, all 105 cruise missiles that were fired reached the targets set. According to the opposition-friendly Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, at least 65 cruise missiles were intercepted by the Syrian air defence. Ultimately, this only plays a subordinate role: it was much more important for the coalition to send out a signal that the consequences threatened regarding the “red lines” which had been drawn, and their breaching of these lines, would be put into action. It will also be clear to the coalition that this has barely helped the population threatened by chemical weapons, because Assad can hardly be prevented from using chemical weapons again (especially chlorine) if his personal cost-benefit calculation clearly speaks in favour of such an operation (“Assessing the Impact of the U.S.-Led Strike on Syria“, Stratfor, 16.04.2018; Phil McCausland and Yuliya Talmazan, “Trump’s U.S.-Led Airstrike Won’t Stop Assad’s Chemical Capabilities, Experts Say“, NBC News, 16.04.2018).
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 According to a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the authority to decide on the use of chemical weapons lies with the generals of the Syrian Armed Forces. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, the command authority for the use of chemical weapons is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad and an unnamed general in the Syrian Armed Forces.
 “Chemical weapons used in Syria appear to come from army stockpile“, Reuters, 05.03.2014; Gwyn Winfield, “Ake Sellstrom, Chief UN weapons inspector in Syria, tells Gwyn Winfield about the challenges of doing a CWA inspection in the twenty-first century“, CBRNe World, February 2014, p. 10; Sellström Åke, “United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic“, 12.12.2013.