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

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.

Continue reading “Red Line by Joby Warrick is heartbreaking and inspiring, but mostly heartbreaking”

The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments

Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 2002 Morgan Freeman / Ben Affleck spy thriller movie, The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name. Not knowing anything about the plot, I was hoping to be swept up into a smart, twisty espionage movie with plausible crises, fast-paced action, suspense, and some strong characters with good chemistry between them.

But the movie blew up my suspension of disbelief in its opening scene, because the series of events it presented were, just frankly, impossible. It opens on an Israeli military air base on October 9, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War (or October War or Ramadan War depending on which side you supported). The Egyptian and Syrian forces have made strong gains after their surprise coordinated attack, and Israel decides to launch a fighter jet with a single tactical nuke on board. The pilot’s mission is to stay airborne and wait for orders. If the Israeli ground troops were to start to be completely overrun, the order will be given to him to nuke some enemy target.

As these kinds of movies go, so far so good. I’m pretty sure that in real life no Israeli plane actually took off with a nuke on board. It’s possible Clancy was using artistic license to expand on news reports that then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did elevate the nuclear alert level, but I’ve yet to read any news stories of an Israeli fighter jet zipping around in Syrian or Egyptian airspace with a nuke in its belly. But for a fictional story, I can work with an alternative possible history imagining what might have happened if something important had gone differently than it did in reality.

Story premise: Israel misplaces a nuke in its own backyard but decides to do nothing to find it for 30 years. Whoops.

But the opening scene went off the rails in the first few minutes. You see, the brave Israeli fighter jet pilot – presumably the best pilot in one of the world’s most highly regarded air forces – is flying low over desert terrain that looks a lot like the Sinai, and he does something no pilot would never do. He has a photo of his wife and child perched on the instrument panel. He hits a bit of turbulence, and the photo falls from where he can see it into a hard to reach space near the floor of the cockpit. So what does this world class fighter pilot, who is flying low to the ground to avoid radar and is carrying a live nuke, decide to do? He starts reaching down with one hand and stretching uncomfortably to try to grab the fallen photo, and when he frustratingly can’t get a grip on it, he stops looking out the front windshield, and leans down awkwardly to try to find the photo. When he sits back up straight again, he screams because – forehead slap – he’s about to crash into a hill. Which he does. The plane, the bomb, and the pilot all get hurled into the sand. The pilot is dead and the plane smashed to bits. The nuke is dented here and there but remains intact, unexploded, and half-buried in the desert sand.

Next the screen tells us it’s 29 years later., and we see two Arab men who apparently make some money by looking for discarded military equipment and ordinance from previous wars, collecting a bunch of it, and then selling it to different black market buyers who find some of it useful. They stumble upon the buried Israeli nuke. They don’t know it’s a nuke – but it’s clearly a bomb of some sort. They dig it up, get it on their truck, and end up selling it to some European creep who turns out to be part of a neo-Nazi plot that seeks to acquire a nuke and other WMDs.

So that’s the opening premise. The Israelis secretly put a pilot in the air with a tactical nuke as a last ditch deterrent in case the war on the ground looked like it was about to turn into a total collapse for Israel. Is that much a plausible premise? I mean, okay, why not, you gotta be willing to suspend some disbelief and not get hung up on questions like whether sending up a plane that could crash, be shot down, or even be captured with a single nuke in its hold would be the way that an Israeli head of state would go about making the threat of a nuclear strike known to their enemies.

But we’re supposed to believe the plane crashes because the pilot pulled an Albert Brooks move from Defending Your Life? No way.

And then what happens? The Israeli army has now lost a nuke, somewhere in the desert, possibly still in Israeli controlled territory, or possibly Egyptian or Syrian territory. So what do the Israelis do? They leave it, lost somewhere in the sand. They don’t go get it. They just shrug and go, “welp, heh heh, sorry to all of our allies – especially you, America – but we kind of lost one of our nukes in the desert and we can’t think of any way to organize a mission to retrieve it. Oh, and just to clarify, we aren’t saying we have nuclear weapons. But if we do have them, well, we have them minus one that we are supposed to have. Which we’re not going to bother to try to find and get back. Shalom.”

This is the Israelis, mind you. Not exactly the Keystone Cops of military action. The army that busted into Entebbe airport in Uganda in order to rescue Israeli hostages. They are supposed to be, like, “Yeah, we can’t go looking in a stretch of barely populated desert nearby for a missing nuke.”

Next comes some Hollywood laziness. Because we are told that the two Arab scavengers who found the nuke live in the Golan. Take a look at the landscape of where the Israeli fighter pilot crashes his jet, and where the wreckage of the plane has come to rest:

This is the Golan Heights? It looks like the Sinai desert. Seriously, I’m waiting for some modern day cinematic Moses to walk into the scene of the wreckage and take a close up look at the burning mush that is this shark-jumping movie premise. I’m half-expecting Mark Watney to amble along in his EVA suit. Just in case you’re not familiar with what the Golan looks like, here’s a pic from the Lonely Planet guide to visiting the Golan:

Also, and pay close attention here, if the Israelis lost one of their nukes in 1973 in the Golan, then that means they lost it in territory they controlled and then annexed a few years later. They wouldn’t even need to do a Mission Impossible style nuke retrieval in hostile enemy territory commando op. They would just need to look around for it while they were actively building new Israeli neighborhoods and communities in the Golan.

Continue reading “The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments”

B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind

Note: I wrote almost all of this piece before the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and the accompanying violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted in mid-May 2021. This post does not address those events.

Recently the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, released a new report making the argument that the State of Israel is guilty of apartheid. B’Tselem’s claim is different than one made some months ago by a different Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din. Last September, Yesh Din released a report making the argument that apartheid as a legal term should be applied to Israeli rule in the West Bank, but they declined to address the question of whether apartheid should be used to describe “Israel proper,” ie. Israel within the Green Line, where Arabs and Jews both have citizenship and voting rights.

B’Tselem’s report says that Israel is guilty of apartheid throughout all the lands over which it is the ultimate ruling power. Here’s how they explain their view:

Continue reading “B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind”