Barack Obama, in early 2013, warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad against using his chemical warfare arsenal in the civil war. There were several apparent small uses of chemical agents in the fighting, but on August 21, 2013, Assad used sarin on the town of Ghouta and killed 1400 or more people. Obama made more threats, Congress seemed unwilling to approve bombing. In September, in response to a (perhaps) rhetorical question from US Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that Russia and the US disarm Assad’s chemical weapons. The US took up the proposal.
An international team, headed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, removed and destroyed Syria’s chemical arsenal. Bombing chemical weapons sites would have resulted in many deaths and contamination of wide areas. But the incident is held up as evidence of 1) no US strategy in Syria; 2) Obama’s weakness; 3) Putin’s strength.
We now know that there was more to that interaction. As early as 2011, some in the US government recognized that the Syrian civil war posed a horrendous threat as long as chemical weapons were stored in the country. Planning started, the Russians were contacted on the model of cooperation in securing nuclear materials during the 1990s, and the two countries had contingency plans in their pockets by the time of the Ghouta attack. That was why they could come to agreement in a week and carry out the operation as smoothly as they did.
We might say that from the strong position of having persuaded Russia to back a plan for removing Assad’s chemical weapons, President Obama threatened bombing to push a reluctant Russia into implementing that plan. Framing is everything.
There are strong feelings being expressed on Twitter today that early bombing by the United States would have ended the war in Syria early, and there are scenarios that look that way. The problem with history is that it only occurs once. There are no guarantees that the scenarios of success would have prevailed; we have Iraq and Libya as counterexamples. Certainly the presence of chemical weapons, both in Assad’s willingness to use them and in the damage likely from bombing them, complicated the picture. I don’t see that one factor, and many more, being contemplated in the optimism that more early bombing would have produced a better outcome.
When Kerry suggested that Assad give up his chemical weapons and Lavrov jumped on the suggestion, the interaction seemed scripted to me. There had been American suggestions that Assad give up his chemical weapons before, but Lavrov’s response came very quickly and was received by Kerry without surprise. It seemed almost like a stage routine. Lavrov’s response was unthinkable without a great deal of discussion both in Moscow and very likely with Kerry.
Now we know that there was a plan. It was not a matter of an infinitely wise and clever Putin undercutting the feckless American president. That president had put the deal together, and Putin finally signed on in September.
The planning for this operation had to have been done under tight security to keep it from Assad. If he had known, he might have been much freer in his use of chemical weapons and moved them to new hiding-places, killing more people.
Removing Assad’s chemical weapons did not resolve the Syrian civil war. Assad has used chlorine, essential in water purification, as a weapon. Some of his opponents have found or made small quantities of sulfur mustard and used them. But the consequences of the full arsenal left in place would have been much worse.
Obama’s government saw those possibilities and responded with solid planning and outreach to Russia. That planning and outreach avoided a bombing campaign that would have resulted in still more deaths and set one more marker for Russian-American cooperation. According to Sun Tzu, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.