By William Beecher
Nearly four years ago, President Barack Obama was poised to fire cruise missiles into Syria because the regime of President Bashar Assad had crossed his so-called “red line” and continued to launch poison gas weapons against its citizens.
Saudi Arabia pressured the United States to ensure the strike would be more than a symbolic “pinprick.” The French government dispatched a warship to waters off the coast of Syria to back up the U.S. naval task force preparing for the cruise missile barrage.
But at the eleventh hour, Russia suddenly intervened. President Vladimir Putin announced that Syria was prepared to have all of its 1,000 metric tons of nerve, VX, and mustard gas weapons destroyed. Until that moment, Assad had insisted he had no such weapons. But after the Russian intercession, he changed his tune and agreed to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention, vowing not to manufacture, store, or use poison gas.
Obama was not anxious to take offensive action that could draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, and thus accepted the Russian-Syrian initiative.
In effect, although Assad at the time was on the cusp of losing the war, the initiative saved him. It assured that he could stay in power and continue to bloody those who opposed his regime, assaulting them with barrel bombs and other conventional weapons.
It was not long until Russia inserted combat airplanes into Syria, which, alongside Iranian forces and Hezbollah troops from Lebanon, helped to tilt the war in Assad’s favor.
That was the scenario faced by President Donald Trump, who had suggested in his presidential campaign that he was determined to destroy the so-called Islamic State, but could live with Assad. Later, graphic scenes of children and babies being gassed by nerve agents seem to have changed his mind and his policy.
A traumatized-looking Trump said the specter of babies being gassed crossed many of his own red lines and, having asked his national security team for options, he decided to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian air base from which the nerve gas strike had been launched.
That surprisingly decisive action, from a president who had been viewed as leaning toward “America first” isolationism, was cheered by U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East. Leaders of both parties on the Hill also joined the bandwagon, although some said he should have sought congressional authorization.
Putin and Assad insisted that this was a frame-up and that Syria had not gassed its citizens. But U.S. intelligence said it had intercepted conversations between Syrian air force personnel discussing the upcoming nerve gas operation.
Were the Russians complicit? Surely the nerve gas would have been kept in a secure, off-limits bunker on the Syrian air base, with sentries and signs to keep people away. There is no way that these weapons would have been removed from such a high-security bunker and loaded onto an aircraft without the Russian contingent on the base being aware. The Russians, having seen the warning signs, would have asked a question or two, and no doubt discovered the presence of chemical weapons.
Will Trump follow up that raid by establishing a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border? He dangled that possibility during his campaign. Hillary Clinton did, in fact, unsuccessfully urge such a move on Obama some years ago.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer-Prize winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.
[Photo courtesy of Freedom House]