Obama's biggest achievement in Syria fell short -- and Assad is rubbing it in his face

The Obama administration has touted its negotiations to remove chemical weapons from Syria as a major diplomatic achievement.

But a new report from the United Nations Security Council found that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in violation of the deal the Obama administration brokered with the help of Russia in 2013.

The report confirmed two instances of chlorine-gas attacks carried out by the Assad regime — one in 2014 and one in 2015.

“The Assad regime has learned over the past five years that the Obama administration will do absolutely nothing to protect Syrian civilians from mass homicide,” Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Business Insider via email.

“That it should return to the use of weaponised chemicals is not at all surprising.”

And the Obama administration was likely aware that Assad’s forces were using chemical weapons before the UN report came out.

“This is not a surprise to the administration,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute and US ambassador to Syria between 2010 and 2014, told Business Insider. “We have been getting reports about this chlorine gas for more than a year. Some Syrian doctors testified [to Congress] last year. … So they have known for a long time. Now with the UN report, they’re more on the hook.”

An Obama administration official acknowledged that the US government had suspected the Assad regime was using chlorine gas.

The UN report “back[s] up what we have repeatedly said: time and again the Syrian regime has used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118,” the official said in a statement to Business Insider.

While the UN resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons didn’t stipulate that the regime had to get rid of chlorine as a chemical substance, it did prohibit the government from using it as a weapon.

Assad’s blatant disregard for the deal doesn’t look good for the US, considering that the deal was supposed to be President Barack Obama’s defence against critics who blasted him for backing down on his “red line” in Syria.

Obama infamously stated in 2012 that his red line with the Assad regime would be the use of chemical weapons. And later that year, Assad’s forces killed nearly 1,500 people in a chemical-weapons attack.

But the US didn’t strike. It instead used the chemical weapons deal as a sort of substitute for military action.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who interviewed Obama about his foreign policy for The Atlantic earlier this year, wrote that after the deal was made, Secretary of State John Kerry had “no patience for those who argue, as he himself once did, that Obama should have bombed Assad-regime sites” to protect American credibility on the red line.

And Obama himself said that he was “very proud” of the deal.

“The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake,” Obama told The Atlantic. “And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made — and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

Now it’s evident that Assad hasn’t held up his end of the bargain.

“Assad and his allies — Russia and Iran — hold this administration in absolute contempt,” Hof said. “Assad rubs the ‘red line’ in the president’s face by returning to chemical warfare; [Russian President Vladimir] Putin authorizes Russian aircraft to strike US-equipped, anti-ISIS Syrian rebel units; and [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei turns loose armed Revolutionary Guard speedboats to harass American naval assets in the Strait of Hormuz.”

Hof concluded: “They all sense weakness and they all act accordingly.”

Assad’s flouting of the UN resolution puts Obama in a tough spot, Ford said.

“In any case, it seems that what the Obama administration highlighted as its biggest achievement on Syria … is much less than the administration itself touted. The administration is now left with a response that ‘at least the Syrian government is not using sarin,'” he said, referring to one of the most toxic chemical warfare agents in the world.

Still, it’s perhaps too soon to tell how this will affect Obama’s legacy.

“It’s too early to judge because there are a lot of events moving on the ground in Syria,” Ford said. “I don’t rule out the possibility that in the end, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are going to agree on the elements of the ceasefire.”

For its part, the White House issued a statement condemning Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

“It is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118,” Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in the statement.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Assad regime’s use of chlorine against its own people.”

The US will seek to enforce accountability for the chemical weapons attack at a UN Security Council meeting next week, the Obama administration official said.

The UN report underscores “the importance of the effort this administration led to ensure that Syria also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention so we can hold them to account,” the official said. “That is exactly what we will be pursuing at next week’s UN Security Council meeting.”

It’s so far unclear what the international community can do to enforce the UN resolution.

“The US and Europe already have so many sanctions on Syria,” Ford said. “All of them predate the uprising. … So I’m not sure there are many additional sanctions.”

Assad allies that are parties to the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, like Russia, might be able to inflict some sanctions, but it’s perhaps unlikely that they will.

“It’s a little hard for me to imagine,” Ford said. “As a theoretical possibility, it’s out there.”

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