Obama's 'Red Line' Rhetoric Needs a Revision
The U.S. can do more for Syria, but must not repeat the mistakes of Iraq
April 30, 2013
Last summer, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his administration's "red line" warning on the Syrian conflagration: the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad on his country's citizens or the regime's transfer of chemical weapons stockpiles to terrorists would be a game-changer for U.S. foreign policy. Last week, the US intelligence community concluded "with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria," thereby concurring with earlier conclusions by U.S. allies Britain, France, Israel and Qatar.
The alacrity with which Obama characterized the intelligence reports as "preliminary assessments" suggests that the president may have realized that effective U.S. foreign policy is not made by the (il)logic of "red lines." The only value-added in the red-lines discourse that has saturated inside-the-Beltway debates and talking-head punditry over this past week lies in the ability to focus policymaking attention on two undeniable facts: First, it's time for the Obama administration to do more – no, to do different and do better – in its Syria strategy; and second, it's time to admit that, in the short term, there are no good solutions – only least-worst solutions – to the Syria crisis.
The Obama administration should not use the red line rhetoric as a tripwire for militarizing U.S. policy on Syria (after all, there is still no categorical evidence about who actually used the chemical weapons, where they were used and with what consequences), but instead, should use the red line concept as the impetus for doing four things when it comes to Syria.
First, Washington must improve the mechanisms for ensuring non-lethal military assistance does not end up in the hands of Salafists and al-Qaida units currently operating under cover of opposition to the Assad regime. These self-styled opponents of the regime's brutality have demonstrated their willingness to resort to extra-judicial killings and kidnappings;U.S. materiel cannot go to rebel groups whose worldview and practices are absolutely incompatible with a sustainable day-after solution in Syria. Solving this distribution problem requires that Washington be bolder (if diplomatic) in using its leverage with regional allies, in particular, Saudia Arabia and Qatar, and according to some reports Turkey, to pull the plug on support for anti-regime groups who would simply replace Assad's secular dictatorship with a radical Islamist dictatorship and reconfigure Syria into a Levantine al-Qaida launch-pad for attacks against Western assets in Europe.
Second, Washington should concentrate on improving what it can do best: providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Syria. The need for humanitarian relief, including access to food, water, and medical services, continues to grow exponentially as the Syrian crisis continues unabated, and Washington must work with international donor partners to ensure that financing, delivery and implementation of relief is expedited. There is a compelling political logic, which reinforces the urgent human need for improvements in the humanitarian component to U.S. policy on Syria: Refugee relief is already becoming a political football and social strain for non-radical governments in Jordan and Turkey, so amelioration of the burdens of humanitarian support to Syria's refugees will help to avoid at least one of the negative spillover effects of the crisis.
The bottom line? The Obama administration should revise the "red line" concept, so that it becomes a U.S. foreign-policy tool that can assist in a timely and sustainable solution to the Syria crisis, rather than devolving into a foreign-policy recycling of the worst mistakes of U.S. policy in Iraq.