Throughout much of his presidency, Barack Obama and his top advisors professed a desire to see President Bashar al-Assad’s regime held accountable for its crimes against the Syrian people.
But the State Department’s top brass balked when staff at the U.S. mission to the United Nations drafted a plan in the fall of 2014 to finger the regime for a series of chlorine attacks in Syria, fearing it might upend efforts to secure Russia’s support for peace in Syria and jeopardize an Iran nuclear pact, according to former State Department officials.
Over the following months, the State Department batted down repeated appeals from Wa’el Alzayat, a senior policy adviser to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, to endorse the proposal laying out a set of options for holding the Syrian regime responsible for its ongoing use of chlorine weapons. “My sense is we were being slow-rolled,” Alzayat told Foreign Policy.
In the end, Alzayat and a group of like-minded officials would prevail in a lengthy and highly acrimonious internal State Department skirmish, but not before several months had passed. It would be nearly a year after Syrians first dropped a chlorine bomb before the administration finally agreed to press for a U.N. resolution aimed at holding the perpetrators accountable-and another four months before it would be adopted by the Security Council.
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The administration’s reticence reflected concern that the initiative would place it on a collision course with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch ally of President Bashar al Assad, at a time when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was hoping to kickstart stalled peace talks in Syria, and pursuing separate negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, according to former U.S. officials. The Russians, some of the skeptics argued, would never support the plan, so why pick a fight over a lost cause.
“The question that kept coming back to me and others was ‘why are you pushing this? Russia will veto,’ “ said one former State Department official in Washington, who recalled pressing senior officials to confront the Russians at the United Nations on Syria’s ongoing use of chemical weapons with the Russians.
“They would say: ‘What would happen if we did something and it imploded the relationship we have right now with Russia - tank something else we have going on and to what end?’” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
The Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian chemical weapons file has come under renewed scrutiny since April 4, when a Syrian Sukhoi-22 jet fired a sarin-filled rocket on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 85 people, many of them children, and provided the most compelling proof that the regime preserved a remnant of its chemical weapons program.
The episode highlighted the limits of American diplomacy in dealing with a regime that had agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons program only under the threat of military action - and which flouted its obligations once the threat was removed. But the Obama administration’s caution fits a broader pattern of conflict avoidance with Russia over Syria’s use of chlorine as a chemical weapon. In contrast to its previous efforts to economically isolate Moscow with sanctions following it annexation of Crimea, the Obama White House depended on Russia’s cooperation in ending the civil war in Syria and in containing the regime’s chemical weapons program.
A former White House official recalled that Obama’s National Security adviser Susan E. Rice generally favored any diplomatic efforts at the U.N. designed to hold Syria accountable for its use of chlorine. But she was reluctant to maneuver the U.S. into a showdown with Moscow.
“I never had Susan Rice tell me to ratchet back on that initiative,” said a former White House official. That said, “Susan’s attitude was, ‘We’re not going to throw up veto bait. If we think an agreement can be gotten then let’s get it.’ But she had no interest in having a U.S.-Russian battle if the only purpose is to make the Russians look bad by vetoing something.” Rice declined through a spokesperson to comment.
The Syrian government began developing its chemical weapons program in the early 1970s to deter a possible attack by its militarily superior neighbor and enemy, Israel. By the mid-1980s it was believed to have the capacity to produce eight tons of the nerve agent sarin each month, according to a declassified CIA assessment in 1985. It was just a matter of time before they would develop the capacity to produce the deadlier VX, the CIA predicted.
But until recently, the U.S. never felt the need to confront Syria. That changed on August 21, 2013, when Syria launched a sarin attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing more than 1,400 people, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment, and triggering the threat of U.S. missile strikes.
The strike was averted after Syria agreed in September 2013, to a U.S. and Russian brokered agreement that required Damascus to destroy a vast declared chemical weapons program, including production facilities, munitions, and tons of chemical precursors for sarin and mustard gas, and join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
In the years following that agreement, U.S. officials vigorously defended the pact against charges that the president had squandered U.S. credibility by failing to carry out its threat to respond militarily to the Ghouta attack.
Secretary of State John Kerry, a frustrated proponent of military action against Syria, nevertheless once boasted to NBC “we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria. Though Kerry would later acknowledge Washington had “questions” about whether Syria had fully abided by its obligation to destroy its entire program.
In a recent interview, Obama strenuously defended the chemical weapons pact, asserting that “99 percent of huge chemical weapons stockpiled were removed without having to fire a shot.” But he conceded that it was “an imperfect solution” because “now, we know subsequently that some [chemical weapons] remained.”
In hindsight, several former U.S. officials defended the pact, contending that it did more to neutralize Syria’s strategic chemical weapons program than U.S. military strikes would have achieved.
“It was extremely effective,” said Andrew Weber, who served until October 2014, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs. “We destroyed 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. That’s 1,300 tons they can’t use. It won’t fall into the hand of ISIS or other bad actors.”
But critics inside and outside the Obama administration believe that the U.S. dropped the ball after it secured Russian cooperation in implementing the chemical weapons pact.
Syria’s chemical weapons “dropped several rungs on the Obama administration’s priority list” after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons destroyed the bulk of Syria’s declared program,” said Gregory Koblentz, an expert on the Syrian chemical weapons program and currently director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.
“I think their reasoning was that if we could end the civil war then the chemical weapon attacks will stop,” he said. “So why take steps that focus on the symptoms at the risk of allowing the disease to continue or spread?”
The deal did not, however, mark an end to Syria’s chemical weapons activities. On April,10, 2014 - months before the destruction of Syria’s declared program was complete - Damascus carried out the first of many attacks using chlorine-filled bombs in the town of Kafr Zita.
In a midnight attack, a Syrian helicopter carried out the first of 17 chlorine attacks over a four-month period, sending scores of choking and vomiting victims to local hospital, and killing two people. Livestock, chickens and pigeons also died. The leaves of exposed trees turned yellow.
The initial response from Washington was measured.
Kerry said that Syria would have to face unspecified consequences if it were found to have used chlorine. But there would be no threats of military retaliation. Chlorine, a common industrial cleaner, is far less deadly than sarin.
Chlorine is not illegal for Syria to possess, though its use as a weapon is prohibited.
The United States turned to the Hague-based chemical weapons watchdog to get to the bottom of it. Within weeks, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons established a fact-finding mission to determine whether chlorine had been used. It was, the organization concluded. But it had no authority to say who it thought was responsible.
Frustrated by the inability to pin the blame on Damascus, U.S., British and French diplomats brainstormed about setting up some forum to attribute responsibility for the crimes. But they knew they would have to get the proposal through the U.N. Security Council, where the Russians could veto it.
Still, the White House tasked the U.S. mission in October 2014, to draft a concept paper outlining a strategy to confront Syria.
But Power, Wa’el and a group of other mid-level advocates scattered throughout the White House and State Department still struggled to get Foggy Bottom’s leadership to sign off on it, according to former U.S. officials.
In February, 2015, Bob Mikulak, then the U.S. ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, met with representatives from Britain, Germany and France in the Hague. There, they refined the plan for what would be called the Joint Investigation Mechanism, which would empower experts from the U.N. and the chemical weapons watchdog to name those responsible for the attacks.
Power and Mikulak did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
The Hague-meeting gave the initiative added momentum, and broadened institutional support within the State Department. Meanwhile, America’s closest allies, Britain and France, began to openly press the administration to pursue talks with Russia.
But the push for accountability remained stuck.
“The paramount objective was to avoid any confrontation with the Russians,” said a second former State Department official who also worked on the Syrian chemical weapons file. “Kerry did not want these things to spoil his effort to reach a diplomatic settlement with the Russians.”
Efforts to reach Kerry through a former aide were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, staffers in the offices of Anthony Blinken, then deputy secretary of state and Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, refused to approve the plan.
The second State Department official recalled conversations with Blinken’s and Sherman’s staffers warning that the push for accountability would “undermine the political process in Syria, and that we have to take into account the nuclear negotiations with Iran.”
“We fought tooth and nail and beat our heads against this immovable object,” the official added. “They basically refused to clear the paper and refused to engage constructively with the different stakeholders in the interagency process.”
Other former officials argued that it made no sense for Kerry and his top advisers to suppress any effort to hold Assad’s regime to account. The formal peace process, they noted, remained effectively frozen during late 2014 and much of 2015.
But the second State Department official countered that Kerry was keen throughout the period to restart the peace process, and reduce the levels of violence in Syria. Russia’s cooperation was seen as crucial.
Blinken declined a request for comment. But Sherman said any suggestion she and Blinken were slow-rolling efforts at the U.N. to hold Syria accountable for chlorine use is “a little perplexing. I remember vividly our strong denunciations of the chlorine attack and our constant efforts to press Russia to denounce the attacks.”
There may have been differences over tactics, she added, and whether it made more sense to force the Russians into a veto or to pursue other means towards holding the regime accountable. “I don’t believe there was any stonewalling at all,” she said.
Sherman also challenged the “mythology” that U.S. diplomatic efforts in Syria were somehow dependent on the potential impact it might have on the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.
Among the arguments marshalled against the initiative was that punishing the regime for weaponizing chlorine, which was not classified as a weapon of mass destruction, was less urgent than ending a war that has left more than 400,000 dead. Indeed, the number of Syrians killed by chemical weapons-more than nearly 1,500 by the end of 2015, according to the Syrian American Medical Society-amounts to only a fraction of the country’s dead.
But proponents countered that there was no signs that Syria would ever agree to a political transition, and that turning a blind eye to Assad’s use of chlorine would send a signal that the international ban on the use of chemical weapons would be undermined.
“I’m not saying the Obama administration could have prevented” the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, according to the second State Department official. “But by never taking a strong position against the regime, never curbing its use of chemical weapons and other attacks against civilians, it has emboldened the regime to do whatever they want.”
Indeed, as reports of chlorine attacks increased, international inspectors suspected Syria was cheating on its claims to have destroyed its entire chemical weapons arsenal. In its declaration to the chemical weapons watchdog, Syria denied it had ever weaponized sarin or that it possessed the kinds of short-range rockets used in the Ghouta attack. Syria also denied that that its premier center for weapons of mass destruction and missile technology, the Syrian Studies and Research Center, played any role in the country’s chemical weapons.
Behind closed doors, the U.S. urged the the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to establish an elite team of chemical weapons inspectors-known as the Declarations Assessment Team, or DAT-to poke holes in the Syrian declaration. They quickly discovered the presence of warfare agents, including sarin, Soman and VX, at two of the Syrian research center’s facilities at Barzah and Jamrayah, where Syria had initially insisted no chemical weapons activities had occurred.
But the findings only hardened Russian opposition.
Russia and Iran effectively blocked the adoption of a measure that would have required greater access to those research facilities and placed controls on Syria’s chlorine stocks access. At the Security Council, Russia threatened to veto any attempts by the U.S. and it allies to punish Syria.
“They knew we weren’t going to enforce this in a military way,” said a former White House official. “They gambled, and appropriately so, that we were not going to send Tomahawk missiles in defense of the DAT.”
In the end, the State Department and the White House ultimately gave Ambassador Power the green light in the Spring of 2015 to begin negotiations with Russia on a resolution establishing the new investigation team At that point, the Obama administration has secured it landmark nuclear pact with Iran, easing concerns that the president’s crowning diplomatic achievement could get sidetracked.
After months of negotiations with Russia, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in August, 2015, establishing the new investigation team, some sixteen months after reports first emerged of chlorine’s use.
“Pointing the finger matters,” Power said after the vote, arguing it would deter future attacks and ensure accountability for criminals.
But holding Syria accountable for its crimes was another matter.
Nearly a year after its creation, the joint body issued two reports in June and October 2016, attributing Syrian government of responsibility for three chlorine attacks and accusing the Islamic State of firing mustard gas rockets at the opposition controlled town of Marea.
Britain and France pressed the U.S. to move ahead with a follow-up resolution sanctioning Syria for using chlorine. But Power put on the breaks. This time around, Kerry was in the thick of talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov aimed at ending the siege of Aleppo.
“There was always a reason to delay,” said a former U.S. official.
It was not till the following year that the resolution — largely written by the Obama administration — was put to a vote by the Trump Administration. Russia quickly vetoed it, potentially sending a signal to Syria that it could carry out chemical attacks with impunity.
Within weeks, Syria upped the stakes, reintroducing sarin into the battle field at Khan Sheikhoun. Only this time, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase where the chemical weapons bomber was launched, and warned that he would use force again if it happened again. The strike inflicted limited damage on the airbase, which continued to serve as a base for strikes against opposition-controlled towns. And it has done little to stem the violence in Syria. But there have been no confirmed reports of Syria using chemical weapons since.
Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter.