Speaking, Acting, and Unintended Consequences

If one were to write an account chronicling, analyzing, and critiquing the unintended negative consequences of American policy toward Syria since March 2011, it would be a long and depressing read. If this writer were to highlight the deadliest and most damaging of unintended consequences, it would be this: the Assad regime’s interpretation of the Obama-Trump ‘red line’ on the use of deadly chemical weapons as a green light for it to use everything else at its disposal to commit mass homicide against Syrian civilians. The inevitable if unintended horror is then routinely compounded by over-the-top rhetoric drawing attention to the abomination, plaintively pleading with the world to do something about it, and thinking that eloquent words equal substantive deeds.

In March 2018 we have come full circle to the late summer and early fall of 2013. Nearly five years ago, in the wake of a regime sarin nerve agent attack on the residents of Eastern Ghouta, President Obama backed away from striking the Assad regime’s air force, artillery, and missiles. He settled instead for an agreement to neutralize the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities. The unintended consequence? After a brief pause, the Syrian regime dramatically escalated attacks on civilians, initially refraining from chemicals but gradually weaponizing chlorine. And in April 2017—perhaps with help from North Korea—it returned to sarin itself.

Bashar al-Assad perceived an Obama administration green light to use anything but sarin gas to kill civilians in large numbers. Anything short of sarin or something equally toxic would trigger no material American response. Assad’s non-chemical massacres also killed the Geneva peace conference the United States had tried to promote. As Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly called upon Assad to read the 2012 Geneva Final Communique and pack his bags, Vladimir Putin drew conclusions about American seriousness, and not just in Syria. Crimea would be swallowed and Euro-American passivity toward mass murder in Syria would help produce the refugee crisis of 2015 and its enduring negative effects on Western democracies.

By the spring of 2017 the Assad regime had grown so accustomed to the operational apathy and indifference of the West to mass civilian homicide that it felt safe returning to the use of sarin. This time, however, it miscalculated. The Trump administration responded militarily. As cruise missiles rained down on a regime airbase, it seemed possible that the image of weakness cultivated and transmitted globally by the previous administration might be erased.

Yet it was not to be. As he did in 2013, Assad briefly paused the industrial-strength state terror machine, and then resumed: slowly at first. He needed to be sure that only sarin gas or some chemical/biological compound of similar strength and notoriety would prompt an American military effort to complicate mass homicide. Once satisfied that this was the case, he returned to business as usual. He even stepped up the use of weaponized chlorine, demonstrating that his contempt for the United States was entirely bipartisan.

What is it that we expect of people—Assad, Russian President Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei—whose cynicism is as bottomless as their contempt for everything the United States represents? We can tell ourselves night and day that a publicly proclaimed ‘red line’ on chemical weapons is not a permission slip for everything else: this is not what we mean. But do the views of our adversaries count for nothing?

Parties determined to target civilians along with their hospitals, marketplaces, mosques, and schools will do so with enthusiasm if the ride is free and the assurance of impunity solid. This leaves the United States doubling down on dysfunction by decrying, to the hilarity of the perpetrators, the depredations of criminals who perceive a bright green light flashing in their faces.

On February 28, at the United Nations, American Ambassador Kelley Currie eloquently condemned the ongoing atrocities in Eastern Ghouta and those responsible for them. Among other things, she said the following: “The only way to change the situation on the ground is for all of usevery single one of us around this table and each Member State of this United Nationsto speak the truth about what is happening.” 

More power to Ambassador Currie for speaking the truth. But does she really believe that speaking the truth about the criminality of the Assad regime and its foreign enablers is really going to change the situation on the ground? Really: is that all it takes?

Is there not a danger that the Assads, Putins, and Khameneis of the world will listen to these words and conclude, “Right. Full speed ahead?” Is there not a history of elegant and eloquent talk by American officials at the United Nations accomplishing nothing beyond perhaps assuring adversaries they had nothing to worry about as they did their worst to defenseless civilians? The attitude that words from the podium somehow equate to action on the ground only perpetuates the unintended but corrosive consequence of not being taken at all seriously by adversaries and enemies.

It was good enough for the Obama administration to have Samantha Power speaking the truth about Syria at the United Nations. She did so with words that were moving. Nikki Haley and Kelley Currie are themselves not lacking in eloquence. But they are, sad to say, dealing with a problem that spans two administrations: the unintended consequences of an unintentional green light, and the way those consequences are magnified and deepened by an ever-widening gulf between words and acts.

President Trump and his French counterpart spoke by telephone on March 2, 2018 about the situation in Syria. According to a statement issued by the Elysee, Macron “stressed there will be a firm response in the case of proven use of chemical weapons leading to the death of civilians, in close coordination with our American allies.”

Chemicals have accounted for under one percent of the civilians slaughtered in Syria. Pity the poor people of Eastern Ghouta. Their assailant—a man whose collective punishment atrocities give aid and comfort to extremists around the globe—is murdering them mainly with tools that pass muster in what is left of the West. Taking President Macron’s words literally, even chemicals that fail to kill will be tolerated.

No American official in either the Obama or Trump administration has felt anything but anger and disgust over the criminality of the Assad regime and its enablers in Syria. But the unintended consequences of permitting Assad and his enablers to perceive an unmistakable (if unintentional) green light for certain kinds of murder weapons, plus routinely conflating word with deed, have been dire: both for Syrian lives and the West’s reputation.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.