Thick Red Line

No, we don't have enough evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons.


There are some people who wish the United States would intervene in Syria. For these people, any scrap of evidence will do. Chemical weapons use is convenient because it supports a pre-existing policy preference — much as Paul Wolfowitz explained that, of the many reasons members of the Bush administration had for wanting to invade Iraq, "we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction."

That’s all well and good if you are already itching to lead the paratroops into Damascus, but what about those of us who don’t want to get involved in this mess unless we have no choice?

Let’s stipulate that you are, like me, a reluctant interventionist. We don’t see the United States having a particular interest in who governs Syria, provided that person isn’t in the business of genocide. We’d like to mitigate the humanitarian impact of sectarian conflict, which is why we’re happy the United States has provided $385 million in humanitarian assistance and recently decided to double the $117 million in non-lethal aid it has provided to the opposition.

But it isn’t clear to us that whoever follows Bashar al-Assad will be any better. That’s not an endorsement of the virtues, such that they are, of the Assad government so much as it is a grim prognosis about the prospects for a post-Assad Syria. Much of the literature on successful democratic transitions suggests that violent transitions are unlikely to result in durable democratic systems. I just don’t see much evidence that one can drop democratic processes on a country by JDAM.

Let’s stipulate, then, that we take seriously the president’s red line: We do not wish to enter this conflict, unless the Assad regime begins committing widespread atrocities, like the gassing of cities. Or, as the president said in August, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation." (Aside: Can you imagine the mockery if Bush had set the red line at "a whole bunch" of chemical weapons?)

The purpose of a red line is to deter something like what the Iraqis did at Halabja. There are already terrible things happening in Syria — sectarian conflicts are truly ugly and this is becoming one. The conflict has killed tens of thousands, most of them innocent civilians. But, as far as I can tell, Assad has not yet begun a policy of conducting large-scale massacres of civilians, whether by chemical weapons (like at Halabja) or not (say, Srebrenica in Bosnia). That would change things. As awful as the current conflict is, it could get worse. Holding something back to deter Assad is worth doing.

The corollary is that if we do intervene on the basis that Assad is using chemical weapons, then he might very well start gassing cities — and we won’t be sitting around wondering whether he’s done so or not. When Saddam used chemical weapons against Halabja, there was video of the attack and thousands of casualties. Survivors traveled abroad where they received medical treatment. The evidence was clear and overwhelming.

The evidence we have now is rather less than that. The Syrian opposition has repeatedly claimed that it has been gassed, but these claims have been of doubtful reliability, including allegations that Syria used a chemical weapon that does not exist.

The first lesson of Iraq — and I don’t want to offend your delicate sensibilities here — is that defectors and opposition groups don’t always tell the truth. When President Obama set a red line, he also established a goal for Syrian opposition groups: establish chemical weapons use, get additional U.S. assistance. Pass go, collect $200.  Remember the lead-up to Iraq, when an Iraqi defector told Sky News that it was "100 percent guaranteed" that Saddam would use chemical weapons on coalition forces? Defectors. Caveat emptor.

For all I know, the Syrian opposition really believes it was gassed. Ask the Chinese whether the United States used biological weapons in the Korean War. All the available evidence suggests that we did not, but Mao and company were convinced we did.

If the Obama administration is going to persuade a reluctant interventionist, such as myself, it is going to need much better evidence than is available so far. Forget all the secondhand accounts and opposition-produced videos. (For the perils of diagnosis by YouTube, see "Schiavo, Terry.") These merely amount to the opposition claiming it has been gassed, with embellishments.

We need hard evidence.

First, we need evidence of an attack by Syrian forces. That evidence could take the form of intercepted communications, satellite images of the Syrian units in position, testimony of captured Syrian forces, video of the attack taking place. (For example, radio intercepts were critical evidence in demonstrating that the massacre at Srebrenica had been carried out by the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb Army.)

Second, we need physical evidence that demonstrates victims from that attack were exposed to chemical weapons, such as the nerve agent sarin. This is where chain of custody matters a great deal — we need to know that the physical samples came from victims who were present at a known attack. The more victims from a single attack, the less likely that the exposures are false positives.

A careful review of the physical evidence suggests there is still little to support the notion that the Assad government has used chemical weapons. The physical evidence appears to amount to a pair of blood samples — described in a letter to Congress as "physiological samples." According to subsequent reporting by the Financial Times, there are only two samples — provided by the Syrian opposition — from different victims in different locations. The United Kingdom analyzed one sample at Porton Down; the United States analyzed the other sample, probably at Edgewood. The samples appear to confirm exposure to sarin. There are a lot of techniques that establish exposure to sarin. If you are interested, here are two papers from 2002 and 2008. Note the author with the Porton Down affiliation.

The president has rightly noted that the chain of custody — essentially all the evidence that would link the sample to a victim of a Syrian attack — is simply not intact. "We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them," Obama said.  

I would add that we don’t even know they were used. What the samples demonstrate is that two individuals were exposed to sarin. How those poor sods were exposed is simply not clear.

There seems to be a persistent view within the Obama administration that exposure amounts to use. One official said: "It would be very, very difficult for the opposition to fake this. Not only would they need the wherewithal to steal it or brew it up themselves. Then they’d need
volunteers who would notionally agree to a possibly lethal exposure." Also, did you know the word gullible isn’t in the dictionary?

Syria is sitting on stockpiles of nerve agents, some of which may well have been overrun by opposition forces. Yes, sadly, actually one could expose either prisoners or one’s own troops to nerve agents. I know, who would do an awful thing like that?

Even without deliberately exposing people to sarin, there are opportunities for inadvertent exposure on the battlefield. It is unclear whether Syria has readied unitary agents (which can remain stable for weeks) or binary agents. But if those munitions are deployed in areas overrun by the Free Syrian Army, exposure is quite possible. In 1991, U.S. troops blew up captured Iraqi munitions at Khamisiyah that turned out to be filled with sarin, exposing them. There were also a number of other instances where coalition forces came awfully close to being exposed inadvertently. There are still conspiracy theorists who insist Saddam used chemical weapons in 1991. (It is a popular explanation for Gulf War Syndrome.)

Looking at the experience in Iraq, it should be clear that two samples with no chain of custody ought not be enough to convince a reluctant interventionist. If, of course, you are already figuring out where to site the pool in the Damascus Green Zone, then be my guest. The rest of us, though, are not there yet.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Syria used "small scale" chemical agents to test Western resolve. This is the sort of thing that sounds great over coffee at the Brookings Institution — you can be a sober voice for restraint without giving Bashar al-Assad the benefit of the doubt. But without more evidence than has been made public, the correct judgment is that we do not know whether chemical weapons have been used or not.

I actually think the Obama administration has handled restating the red line reasonably well — though no one reported it correctly. In addition to restating the red line, a senior official on background (on background for no good reason, I might add) made clear that the administration will pursue the allegations of chemical weapons use. It is important for the president to convey that his restraint reflects the quality of the evidence, not indecision. The president could go further than his most recent statement by reminding Syrian commanders that they will be held personally responsible for any war crimes committed by units under their command. But overall, he’s not doing too badly.

(His opponents, on the other hand…God help us. One reason the Syrians might conclude the president is weak is that his political opponents keep saying that. Hey folks, how about coming up with a national security policy that amounts to more than a list of countries you’d like to attack on the basis of whatever half-assed intelligence report you find convenient? Since I am still waiting for my apology regarding Iraq, I guess I realize the answer.)

The best outcome is still that Assad holds off on gassing cities until the very end — by which time we hope it will be too late. Either his military will be crumbling too fast or his commanders will be thinking about their golden years someplace sunnier than Den Haag. Intervening now, on the basis of this intelligence, simply removes whatever is keeping Assad from gassing cities.

If Syria starts gassing cities or military units, by the way, we’ll know. We won’t have a measly two samples. It will be obvious. And we’ll have to do something about it. We’ll have to do something about it both because of the moral imperative to respond to large-scale atrocities, as well as the fact that Bashar al-Assad is probably not the last jerk who’ll find himself in possession of nerve gas.

But we’re not there. Yet.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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