A gas attack in Syria that has left more than 70 people dead has been widely condemned by the international community, triggering an emergency UN Security Council meeting. It is another example of Syria crossing a “red line” that was drawn by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012, a threat that is yet to deter the Syrian regime.
The “red line” was cited by Obama’s successor in the White House, Donald Trump, on Wednesday. The current U.S. President said that the attack “crosses many, many lines,” and the U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence, told Fox News, “all options are on the table,” reports ABC News
So, what is the red line of Obama, how did this Syria gas attack cross it, and how will Donald Trump respond?
Obama Draws Red Line Over Syria
Obama’s red line on Syria was drawn back in 2012.
The then-president said “a red line for us is when we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
Yet that same year Assad ‘s forces killed nearly 1,500 people in a chemical weapons attack, according to the Business Insider. In response, Obama requested congressional approval for military intervention, which was refused. This has led Pamela Engel to accuse the former president of getting “cold feet” over Syria.
So, what really happened to Obama’s red line?
In 2012, American negotiators were busy trying to secure the Iranian nuclear deal, according to Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal. He claims that as Syria was “Iran’s closest Arab ally,” the Iran deal could only be pursued if the U.S. didn’t take military action against Syria’s President Assad.
The Iran deal was called by Engel “the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration,” as it led to Iran reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium and halting its research and development of a nuclear arsenal.
Obama’s actions in 2012 and afterward appear to suggest that his priority was achieving this Iran deal more than standing by his “red line” on Syria. In the end, the Obama administration brokered an agreement whereby Syria’s government agreed to destroy their arsenal of weapons capable of being used in future gas attacks. This arguably fell short of Obama’s promise of “enormous consequences” if Syria crossed his “red line.”
Syria Gas Attack
The attack that has left more than 70 people dead in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria is the deadliest chemical attack since a sarin gas attack near Damascus in 2013. This latest gas attack, whose victims are mainly Syrian civilians, was also believed to have been sarin gas. U.S. Intelligence officials believe the attack is most likely to have been dropped by a Syrian aircraft.
Russia, however, claimed the attack was caused by a leak from a rebel weapons depot after it was hit by Syrian bombs, though this was dismissed by a White House official. Russia, as well as China, has regularly been on the opposite side of policies to the U.S. surrounding Syria in the U.N., with seven vetoes to date that have helped to protect President Assad’s government in Syria.
The Russian Deputy UN Ambassador then went further, claiming that Obama’s “red line” had been a provocation for such attacks. Mr. Safrankov said that the red line had been used by “extremist structures” to use chemical weapons in order to “discredit the official Damascus regime and to create a pretext for the use of military force against [Syria].”
With the U.S. now under a new administration who has, so far, arguably had a more positive outlook on Russia than its predecessors, the past day’s events have become all the more notable. Both Donald Trump and the U.S.’s U.N. ambassador came out in criticism of the gas attack, standing clearly in opposition to their Russian counterparts.
Mr. Trump said in a press conference on Wednesday that, in reference to the gas attack in Syria, “what happened yesterday is totally unacceptable to me.” Crucially, he then went on to mention the notion of the attack having crossed lines, in what many commentators are surmising is a reference to Obama’s 2012 policy towards Syria. He also noted that his own attitude “has changed very much.”
Ms. Haley, the U.S.’s U.N. ambassador, was yet more direct in her criticism of Syria and its allies.
“Assad, Russia, and Iran have no interest in peace. The illegitimate Syrian Government…has committed atrocities against [its] own people.”
Ms. Haley went on to give the clearest hint yet that the U.S. may be willing to become more directly involved in the conflict, saying “there are times… when we are compelled to take our own action.” Mr. Trump refused to give any exact details of what his administration’s response may be against this gas attack in Syria and the ongoing conflict in the region.
In the wake of the gas attack in Syria, the international community once more seems to be in a state of poised tension. Whether President Trump will now choose to act on Obama’s “red line” promise will unfold in the days to come.
[Featured Image by Hassan Ammar/AP Images]