Kerry: Decision Not to Enforce Syria Red Line ‘Cost Us Significantly in the Region’

Patrick Goodenough | December 5, 2016 | 4:13am EST
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Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at a Sept. 14, 2013 press conference in Geneva where a deal was struck for the Assad regime to hand over its declared chemical weapons stockpile. (AP Photo, File)

( – Not enforcing President Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria carried a “cost” for the United States in the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry conceded Sunday, although he insisted that it was a cost based on a misperception.

Addressing an issue that has overshadowed Washington’s approach to the Syrian civil war through much of his tenure at the State Department, Kerry told a Brookings Institution Saban Forum event the U.S. ended up with a better result – getting the Assad regime to surrender chemical weapons – than it would have obtained had Obama gone ahead and bombed.

“The lack of doing it [carrying out airstrikes], perception-wise, cost us significantly in the region, and I know that and so does the president,” he said. “As much as we think it’s a misinterpretation … it doesn’t matter. It cost. Perception can often just be the reality.”

In the summer of 2013, more than 1,400 Syrians were killed in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A year earlier, Obama had declared that the use of chemical weapons in the Syria conflict would be a “red line for us.”

After the attack, the administration signaled that Obama would order punitive airstrikes in response to the “red line” having been crossed in such deadly fashion. Kerry led the effort to make a case to the American people and Congress.

Bodies of some of the victims of the August 21, 2013 chemical attack near Damascus, blamed on the Assad regime. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, File)

Instead, Russia found a way to get its ally in Damascus off the hook, by agreeing to hand over its chemical weapons – those that were declared, at least – in return for avoiding the promised military strikes.

Kerry contended that the threat of U.S. military strikes led to the Assad regime agreeing to surrender its chemical weapons, in a deal negotiated by him and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Others have argued that Kerry was outmaneuvered by the Kremlin, since the notion that Assad could avoid punishment if he handed over the weapons was first aired by Kerry in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff press conference remark.

(Kerry disputes that it was a “throwaway” line that the Russians seized upon, although the State Department itself called his comment “rhetorical and hypothetical” rather than a serious proposal – until Russia picked it up and ran with it.)

In Sunday’s comments, Kerry said Obama never made a decision not to bomb. On the contrary, he made a decision to bomb, but was struggling to get congressional authorization before acting.

“The decision [from Congress] wasn’t forthcoming, and in the meantime, I got a deal with Lavrov to get all of the chemical weapons out of the country.”

“So in effect, we got a better result out of not doing it, but it was the threat of doing it that brought about the result,” he said.

Obama’s “red line” episode brought strong criticism, both at home and in a region where many hoped military action directed at the regime by the world’s superpower could alter the course of the civil war, and hasten its end.

An influential Saudi prince and former ambassador to the U.S., Turki al-Faisal, called the Kerry-Lavrov deal a charade that was “designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said the incident had left him embarrassed, and had “cost [America] in so many ways.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it “one of the sad stories of the president’s foreign policy.”

At the time when Obama was mulling military action in response to the August 2013 chemical weapons attack, the death toll in Syria’s civil war – which had begun more than two years earlier – was around 100,000, according to the United Nations.

More than three years later, it has risen to an estimated five times that number.

Kerry’s remarks at the Saban Forum focused mostly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which he invested considerable time and effort in working on, ultimately with little to show for it.

He pushed back when the event moderator, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, said that no-one believed the Israeli-Palestinian issue was the core issue in the conflict-ridden region.

“Why does this even matter from an American national security perspective?” Goldberg asked. “You have a situation in which half of the Middle East is disintegrating – you have a cataclysm in Syria, near-cataclysm in Iraq, Libya, Yemen as failed states, Sunni-Shi’a arguments that are vicious and violent.”

“No one believes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the root of the Middle East’s problems anymore,” he continued, asking Kerry whether in retrospect it had been worth spending the amount of time he had on the Israel-Palestinian issue.

Kerry evidently disagreed. He argued that peace between Israel and the Palestinians “fits into the entire issue how you are going to calm down the Middle East, how you are going to ultimately build a society that makes the transition through this clash of modernity with tribalism, sectarianism and radical religious extremism.”

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