Red Line by Joby Warrick is heartbreaking and inspiring, but mostly heartbreaking

Note: you can listen to an audio version of this post at this link.

Just finished reading Red Line, by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joby Warrick. It was published in February 2021.

Warrick tells the story of how, since the 1980s, the Assad regime in Syria built a massive chemical weapons production industry and a stockpile of weapons capable of killing tens of millions. Thanks to a highly placed CIA informant within the program, US intelligence services were able to keep relatively informed about it. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Assad began dropping chemical weapons on rebel-held villages, in civilian centers, and a number of brave Syrian civilians risked their lives to gather evidence and smuggle it out of the country so that the rest of the world would know.

Soon after the civil war began, when Assad’s regime looked ready to collapse, many world leaders, especially in the West, hoped Assad would be forced to flee. On the other hand, while some of the rebel groups seeking to oust Assad were pro-democracy and pro-pluralism, others, like ISIS, were intent on seizing power and imposing their own form of tyranny and brutality. Obama and other world leaders became alarmed at the possibility that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities might fall into the hands of ISIS or one of the other Islamist rebel groups, and the US defense department began working on a massive effort to prepare for the possibility of needing to act to secure and destroy those weapons if they were about to fall into jihadists’ hands.

Before that scenario had a chance to play out, intelligence reports started arriving in the US and elsewhere indicating that Assad had begun using poison gas against rebel held populations. Then came a press conference, actually about health care, during which Obama was asked a question by a reporter about the possibility that Assad was using chemical weapons in battle. In his response, Obama used the phrase “red line” for the first time to warn Assad that use of chemical weapons would lead to the US taking action against him. He would go on to use the phrase two more times in prepared remarks, including during a speech he gave to university students in Israel.

Obama to young Israelis: 'You are not alone'
Obama speaking to Israeli university students during a visit to Israel in March 2013. Photo from Reuters – Creator: Larry Downing.

The story that Warrick goes on to tell is as depressing as any deep-dive piece of reporting on war crimes and atrocities, and it shines a light on many heroic individuals who tried to save lives and stand firm against inhumanity. Warrick describes a UN team of inspectors who were allowed into the country with a mandate to collect evidence to determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used, though they had to accept Assad’s condition that any report they made would not be allowed to make claims about who was responsible for using the weapons. In this manner, Assad and his Russian backers would be able to maintain their disinformation campaign claiming that if anyone had used chemical weapons it must have been one of the rebel groups.

While the UN team was in Syria, one of Assad’s generals ordered a large scale chemical attack, using sarin gas, on a rebel held Damascus suburb called Ghouta, killing about 1,400 people and injuring thousands. Many children were among the victims. (Here is a link to a Human Rights Watch report on what happened at Ghouta. But before you go there, a warning – the very first thing you see is a photograph of dozens of dead children killed in the attack. I wasn’t prepared for that when I visited the site, and it hit me very hard.)

The UN team decided to do all it could to gather evidence from the Ghouta attack, but meanwhile various intelligence agencies had concluded firmly that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons in the war. Assad had crossed Obama’s red line, and Obama had to decide how to respond. Initially, he wanted to launch airstrikes in Syria, but he didn’t want to imperil the UN inspection team. He tried to get the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to pull the inspection team out ASAP, but Ban wouldn’t do it, arguing that it was against his mandate to remove a diplomatic team seeking to gather evidence about chemical weapons use in order to help another country carry out a military strike.

A few weeks of this stalemate elapsed, and in the meantime different domestic and international leaders sought to influence Obama’s thinking regarding what consequences he might impose on Assad’s regime for crossing this line. There were leaders who were worried that airstrikes might backfire in any number of ways. There were progressives who did not want any president taking military action against a new foe without getting authorization from Congress – something that candidate Obama had stressed was the Constitution’s requirement for waging war. Ultimately, Obama announced that he would seek Congressional authorization of military action – something he thought he would easily get. But he and his advisers misread the political moment in Congress. Republicans were against anything Obama wanted to do and signaled their unwillingness to support him in this effort if for no other reason than simply to hurt him politically. But most Democrats were also opposed, saying they wanted no part of risking the opening up of a new potentially endless war in the Middle East.

Then came a diplomatic breakthrough. Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, had been meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, intensively to look for ways to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons. Thus began the intensive Obama administration diplomacy that led to “the deal,” the September 2013 agreement signed by the US and Russia to oversee the removal of Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its production facilities. Russia, Syria’s main ally, was able to push Assad to accept the deal, which meant there would definitely be no US-led military attacks against his forces in the coming months and that Russia would be able to continue to grow its influence in the region. For the US and the rest of the world concerned both about Assad’s use of the weapons and the potential for jihadist rebel groups to steal some of the weapons, the deal meant achieving two important goals: 1) imposing a major consequence on the Assad regime for crossing Obama’s “red line,” and 2) removing (hopefully) all of the weapons and Assad’s factories for making more.

File:Portretfoto Sigrid Kaag 2017 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Sigrid Kaag

Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat known for getting difficult assignments done, headed a UN team to Syria to supervise the documentation of all of Syria’s chemical weapons stock and its production facilities. It would fall to the US to lead the effort to haul the toxic weapons away by sea, and then to destroy the chemicals so that they could do no future harm. Warrick’s account describes the astonishing cleverness, innovation, determination, and hard work led by Tim Blades, director of operations for something called the Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team. Blades’ team conceived of, designed, built, and made ready a contraption called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System – a machine that looked like something out of a low-budget mad scientist movie – that was designed to process the Syrian chemicals through a bunch of tubes, hoses, and pumps, mixing in water and other agents resulting in the conversion of the dangerous substances into non-poisonous waste. Blades’ crew dubbed the contraption the “Margarita Machine.” The machines were, amazingly, designed to function aboard ship at sea (no country wanted to receive the chemical weapons for on-land destruction).

The other logistical heroes of the story include Rick Jordan, the captain of an American retro-fitted ship, the Cape Ray, the all-volunteer crew of the ship, and Captain Torben Mikkelsen, a Danish skipper of a ship called the Ark Futura. Mikkelsen’s ship received the many containers of the chemical weapons, eventually setting sail on a risky mission to meet up with the Cape Ray at an Italian port, where dock workers would then transfer the entire cargo of chemical weapons materials – enough to kill more than 20 million people – to the Cape Ray, whose crew would then use the Margarita Machine to render the entire stockpile harmless.

MV Cape Ray (T-AKR-9679) at Norfolk VA in 2014
The MV Cape Ray in 2014

There were all kinds of unforeseen obstacles for the Ark Futura and the Cape Ray. The Italian government only reluctantly agreed to allow the transfer and gave permission for only one day’s time in their dock. The Cape Ray then had to use their machinery on the chemicals at sea for the first time and hope that everything worked. There were also problems with the distribution of weight on the Cape Ray that weren’t expected, putting the ship at risk of capsizing and dropping its toxic load into the sea. At one point, environmentalists opposed to the carrying of such dangerous substances across the Mediterranean without the consent of the countries that might be affected by an accident planned a maritime protest flotilla of boats hoping to block or disrupt the path of the US vessel. The crew of the Cape Ray caught a break when very choppy seas thwarted the flotilla.

Ultimately, the crew successfully destroyed the entire declared chemical weapons stockpile at sea, and there is no way of knowing how many Syrian lives were saved from a horrific fate as a result. Warrick’s book gives credit to the Obama administration and the many determined diplomats, maritime professionals, military and intelligence personnel, and their staffs for pulling off an incredible achievement. Experts and analysts really didn’t know whether the entire gambit would work – starting with the process of identifying and removing the stockpiles from Syria while the war raged on, and continuing all the way through until the final canister of nerve agent precursors was processed through the Margarita Machine. In the end, Obama managed to dramatically degrade Syria’s chemical weapons program without taking military action. Any airstrikes he might have ordered would not have been able to take out so much of Syria’s stockpile.

The reason I’m not saying the operation destroyed the entire Syrian program is because, as Warrick documents, Assad hid some of his chemical weapons successfully, and he began using much cruder chemical weapons – chlorine, essentially – in attacks after the US led effort to remove his chemical weapons was complete. Chlorine is not as deadly nor can it be easily used to kill and sicken as many people all at once as nerve agents, and it is such a common industrial chemical that it would be impossible to prevent any country from having it readily available. Nevertheless, it is a nightmare to be hit by a chlorine chemical attack, and Assad simply would not cease completely from using some form of chemical weapons.

Samantha Power

From this point forward, Red Line becomes an increasingly depressing read. In addition to Assad’s continuing use of chemical weapons, albeit at a smaller scale, the civil war increasingly looked like it would eventually result in victory either for Assad’s regime or for one or more of the jihadist rebel groups, while the rebels that would seek to establish a regime that respects human rights became ever more unlikely to prevail. In addition to Russia throwing its military and political weight behind Assad, Iran sent in a top general and ground troops to aid the Syrian dictator, and Hezbollah sent thousands of its fighters to help Assad too. Each of the parties involved in the war had its own objectives and interests, and the brutality and massive scale of the carnage would come to leave much of Syria in rubble that Warrick described as similar to what much of Germany or Japan looked like at the end of WW2.

The last part of Red Line covers part of the Trump presidency. What Warrick presents won’t surprise anyone familiar with the impulsive, self-congratulatory, and self-centered behavior patterns of the 45th president. Trump had campaigned on a platform of getting the US completely out of Syria. But a few months into his term, Assad struck with chemical weapons and viral videos of dead children circulated quickly. Warrick describes a moment in which Ivanka Trump apparently came to her father suddenly and made him watch some of the videos and urged him to do something. Trump reportedly became incensed and wanted to take sudden, massive military action, possibly toppling the Assad regime. As someone who lived in abject fear of Trump throughout his presidency – especially of his unbridled narcissism – I was actually surprised a bit that he was capable of having a moment of indignant outrage on behalf of murdered Syrian children.

Trump’s top military people, especially James Mattis, talked him down from launching a full-on new war in Syria and convinced him instead to opt for an operation using cruise missiles aimed at some strategic targets, which is what Trump ended up ordering. At first, Trump got a lot of praise even from some of his critics at home and abroad, and especially from Syrian civilians who had felt abandoned by the US and the West. But Assad waited a bit, saw that Trump did not seem interested in getting more involved, and then resumed the pattern of chlorine attacks after a short interruption.

The book then describes essentially the lack of any coherent policy by Trump. He would go on to make sudden, unexpected policy moves that blindsided US defense officials, military leaders, and diplomats – moves that ceded American influence in Syria to Russia and Iran. The first of these lurches happened about 2 months after the airstrike, when Trump announced the immediate cessation of a massive CIA operation that had been funding, arming, and training some of the rebel groups, much to Putin’s delight. Warrick explains that the CIA program had lots of problems and would likely have been wound down by a Democratic administration as well, but Trump officials whom Warrick quotes expressed astonishment and dismay at the abrupt termination of the program.

Warrick writes:

“It was like a guillotine,” said one former Trump official who said he supported the goal of eliminating the program, but not the means. “We should at least have gotten a soft landing, or a cease-fire with the Russians to buy time. We might have thought a little about the people who worked with us and made sure they were safe and were able to get out of there.”

Another Trump official, blindsided and exasperated, described the outcome of the decision more bluntly.”

“Putin won,” the official said.

The other beneficiary was Iran…”

Red Line, p. 279

A similar pattern played out the next year, 2018, when Trump responded to another chemical attack by Assad. Advised by his new national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump decided on another cruise missile attack, with British and French support. Warrick reports that Trump also urged Bolton to go on TV as much as he wanted and attack Obama for his more nuanced and cautious (and as Trump wanted to portray it, weak) Syria approach. Warrick writes that while both of these airstrikes gave moral support to anti-Assad forces, they did little to deter Assad and nothing to prevent the incremental take-over of dominant influence over Syria by Russia and Iran.

And just as in 2017, Trump would follow his 2018 airstrike by pulling the plug on key American strategic involvement in the war, and doing it in a way that pulled the rug out from under his own top officials. Just as defense secretary James Mattis and special envoy Brett McGurk were wrapping up meetings in Ottawa and Qatar to reassure allies that Turkish rumors of an imminent full US withdrawal of its remaining troops in Syria were false, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned McGurk to tell him that “Trump had made a snap decision after a conversation with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader had convinced Trump he could now handle the ISIS problem on his own.”

File:Brett McGurk MSC 2017.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Brett McGurk

Warrick writes: “McGurk was astonished. He was also angry. How could he tell the Syrian Kurds that their fates had been abruptly consigned to Erdogan, who regarded their militia army as a terrorist group? ‘My counterparts in coalition capitals were bewildered,’ McGurk wrote soon after the policy change was announced. ‘Our fighting partners in the [Kurdish-led] SDF, whom I had visited regularly on the ground in Syria, expressed shock and then denial, hoping Trump would change his mind.’ ‘Trump tweeted, ‘We have defeated ISIS in Syria,’ McGurk continued, ‘but that is not true.'”

A day after Trump’s announcement to pull the last US troops in Syria out, Mattis resigned. McGurk resigned the day after that. And Trump did his usual thing, taking to Twitter to belittle and insult them, and accuse the media of creating a fake controversy about their resignations.

Warrick’s book doesn’t extend all the way to the 2020 election and the early months of the Biden Administration. It also doesn’t include much material about the Netanyahu government’s decisions throughout the decade it covers – something I’m especially interested in given my personal and ethno-religious interests in Israel. But it does paint a picture that helped me get a deeper understanding of the many leaders, ideological movements, and everyday people outside the limelight who have enacted this horrifying and cruel war that has produced millions of refugees and killed a shocking number of civilians including kids.

Some of my takeaways include:

Warrick faults Obama and Trump in their handling of Syria, but the contrast he presents of the kinds of mistakes the two presidents made is striking and about what you might expect if you are anything other than a part of the MAGA disinformation bubble.

Regarding Obama, Warrick paints a picture of a man who, as a Senator, focused heavily on the issue of WMD proliferation and traveled with Senators to multiple sites where Cold War era WMDs were in the process of being destroyed in order to study the issue. The book is admiring of Obama’s intellectual strengths and determination to try to solve problems effectively and if possible diplomatically, and gives him credit for his successes, which include supporting the DOD initiatives that led to the creation of the Margarita Machine and the deal with Russia that in fact destroyed the vast majority of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and its production facilities.

But for Warrick, Obama’s big mistake was not understanding the influence of his “red line” remarks. Obama and his top advisers should have known that those words would lead to the rebels and the suffering Syrian civilian masses expecting the US to intervene in a way that confronted Assad with military action. And before Obama declared a red line, he and his cabinet should have sorted out how they were going to take military action in a way that it would not get hung-up by the kinds of dilemmas they ended up facing.

Rebel groups and US allies reorganized their military and diplomatic strategies after Obama’s thrice-declared “red line” warning, based on the belief that US airstrikes would come as soon as proof was found that Assad had used the banned weapons. When that proof arrived, they were surprised that Obama pivoted to a position of “well, I need Congress’s approval before I can do it,” and Warrick faults Obama’s administration for having been surprised that hardly anybody in Congress had his back. Warrick doesn’t belittle the concerns Obama had – that he didn’t want to launch airstrikes while a UN team was still on the ground, and that he cared about constitutional questions about the executive branch’s authority to take military action without Congressional authorization. But he also doesn’t try to deny Obama’s mistakes. If Obama wasn’t ready to make good on his “red line” threat without equivocation or long delays, then Warrack seems to think that he shouldn’t have used that language. And if Obama didn’t realize that those words would be understood to mean airstrikes or some other military action – and not other potential consequences – Warrick seems to think that that’s something he should have known, or at minimum his advisers should have known. At the same time, Warrick gives lots of credit to Obama for hiring brilliant diplomats like Samantha Power and seizing the opportunity to move the deal with the Russian forward and in effect deal Assad’s chemical weapons program a serious blow. And he gives him credit for having set the processes in motion that led to the development of the Margarita Machine long enough before Assad crossed his red line that there was an American option for destroying the weapons available and ready to use when the opportunity for the deal with Russia presented itself.

Obama destroyed vastly more chemical weapons through diplomacy than Trump did with missiles. But ultimately neither president succeeded in changing Assad’s behavior, or shortening Syria’s war.”

Red Line, p. 300

Regarding Trump, Warrick seems as horrified as so many of us were throughout the Trump years by the former president’s pattern of impulsive, self-congratulatory, naive, incomplete, and contradictory actions. If Obama was guilty of errors resulting from misreads in the pursuit of managing a terrible foreign policy situation with no good options, the missteps were ones that someone like Obama would be likely to acknowledge and seek to learn from. By contrast, Trump’s deeply broken psyche and prioritizing of self-aggrandizing media moments over the coordinated pursuit of a coherent foreign policy led to mistakes that strengthened Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad, while simultaneously abandoning allies and degrading the integrity and strength of American institutions like the military and diplomatic corps.

As for Putin, well, he comes across as the amoral, cynical, cold and brutal dictator of a world power that he is. His UN ambassador, Lavrov, gets some credit for working constructively with Samantha Power, but otherwise the Russian leader appears to have pursued his pro-Assad goals with a ruthless combination of lies, disinformation, and indifference to human suffering.

Iran and Hezbollah come across as ideological and strategically self-interested actors. For the Shi’ite Hezbollah, siding with Assad was partly driven by opposing the Sunni extremists led by ISIS and al-Qaeda inspired factions, partly driven by a desire to strengthen their military and political alliance with Iran, and partly driven by a desire to gain serious combat experience for thousands of their fighters, whose primary object of hatred is of course Israel. It is also likely that Hezbollah hoped it could capture some of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile or position itself to receive some of it, which would be an incredibly powerful deterrent and potentially devastating weapon to use against Israelis or rival Lebanese factions in the never-ending contest for dominance between Lebanon’s different groups. Iran, for its part, made progress in its goal to establish a strategic land bridge that cuts across Shi’ite dominated parts of Iraq, through Syria and into southern Lebanon. Having troops on the ground in Syria also gave Iran a new strategic element in its ongoing low-grade war with Israel.

The Sunni jihadist groups, most notably ISIS, come across as driven by a vision of a theocratic Sunni fundamentalist regime in as much of the Middle East as could be conquered. They also wanted to steal chemical weapons from Assad and Warrick leaves no doubt that they would have been more than ready to use them. If you remember, it was this specific scenario that the US was most worried about when the Syrian civil war first intensified and it looked like Assad’s regime was going to fall. The book depicts them as terrifying, uncompromising, brutal, and brainwashed.

As I said earlier, there’s not much in this book about the Israelis. Their intelligence services worked hand-in-hand with the US and other western powers, and they are credited at one point with discovering and helping prevent two different ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks that would have been mass-casualty events (one involved blowing up an Australian airliner mid flight). My guess is that the Israeli political and defense establishment has struggled to figure out which outcomes to hope for in the war. On the one hand, Assad’s use of chemical weapons must have worried them – would a desperate Assad use them against Israel? On the other hand, Hezbollah or the ISIS-led groups could also use them against Israel. No doubt that Iranian forces growing in number and strength in Syria provided motivation and justification for Israel’s ongoing attacks and assassinations of people involved in Iran’s nuclear program on Iranian soil.

There is one point Warrick briefly mentions that I think is also relevant. As everyone knows, Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapons power, with a stockpile of hundreds of nukes in its arsenal. One of the impacts of Israel having nukes is that it motivates its enemies to have WMDs too. The Syrian chemical weapons program got started in part to give the Assad regime a brutal means of maintaining its dictatorship, for sure, but it also got started as a way to counter the Israeli threat of using nukes against Damascus. The same goes for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Warrick does not assail Israel for having nukes, nor does he suggest that anyone other than Assad is responsible for the decision to have a chemical weapons program and then use it. But he does name this fact, which matters in a story that is full of examples of unintended consequences. I mean, this is going to sound crazy naive to lots of people, but what would it look like if Israel were to announce (a) that it is declaring itself publicly to have nukes instead of maintaining the policy of “maybe we do maybe we don’t”, and (b) that it is prepared to eliminate its nuclear stockpile in exchange for a permanent iron clad trust-but-verify program involving every single country in the Middle East destroying or refraining from ever having any kinds of WMDs – nuclear, chemical, or biological? I’m not saying Israel doing that would lead directly to kumbaya throughout the region. I am saying that if you maintain a secret WMD program and lie about it to the world, it makes it harder for you to decry another country that does the same, and it is inevitable that other governments will try to match your WMD capabilities one way or another.

Warrick’s book also mentions, without discussing much, the sad and horrifying fact that the US and the USSR both developed massive chemical weapons stockpiles, in violation of treaties to which they were a part. When the book describes a young Senator Obama flying to various sites in the Former Soviet Union with other senators of both parties, in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges involved in accounting for and neutralizing former Soviet chemical weapons, we can’t help but consider what horrifying things might have been done with those weapons. Same goes for the US. The book describes a major facility on the East Coast where American secret chemical weapons were ultimately acknowledged and then methodically destroyed as part of post Cold War agreements with Russia, Ukraine, and other countries. What horrifying things might an unstable or unhinged American president have done with these weapons (and we now all know that we are perfectly capable of having unhinged and unstable presidents)?

Again, none of these points justify or diminish the moral horror Warrick has for Assad and his enablers. The most heartbreaking parts of this book reveal that a mass-murdering tyrant like Assad chose to gas his own citizens on a massive scale, and Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah leaders all have been willing to lie and protect Assad. The next time I hear a Hezbollah supporter talking about the righteousness of their cause fighting for Palestinian liberation, I hope someone counters by asking what kind of liberation movement sends troops to help an Assad use nerve agents against children. But that rant is for another time.

I’m glad I read Red Line. I learned a lot. I’ll close with the heroes of this book. There are many. They just aren’t household names. This book taught me a lot about how hard a lot of people try to save the lives of innocents, and how dedicated many public officials are to trying to do the right thing. The heroes of this book include Syrian doctors and nurses; Turkish medical and diplomatic workers; Danish, American, British, Chinese, and Russian naval and commercial mariners; Italian longshoremen; Dutch and Swedish diplomats; American defense and state department officials and contractors; intelligence analysts from many countries; journalists from many countries; and world leaders who have given shelter and asylum to Syrian refugees, along with the countless officials and workers in many professions involved in those efforts.

Houssam Alnahhas on Twitter: "I had the privilege to get my story told but  will always remember thousands of heroes behind the scene who we never had  the chance to hear their
Dr. Houssam Al Nahhas, who was a medical student in Syria at the time Assad began using chemical weapons, is one of the heroes of Red Line. He decided to risk his life to help smuggle evidence of chemical weapons use out of Syria, and he organized trainings for Syrian medical professionals on how to treat victims of chemical attacks. (This is a picture from his Twitter account of him reading Warrick’s book. Here’s the entire tweet.)

There are, in fact, a shocking number of heroes in this ongoing nightmare. People who have taken on tasks of responding with the best of our human capabilities and qualities to different pieces of this hellish ongoing war. And sometimes risking their lives, and paying with their lives, to do so.

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