“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my calculation”.
President Barack Obama, August 2012
Alphen, Netherlands. 17 August. To be effective statecraft must consider all options if strategy is to realise outcomes. Yesterday, at least nine civilians were killed in Aleppo, and others died on the outskirts of Damascus, as a result of the regime’s use of barrel bombs filled with life-crushing chemicals. Yesterday’s victims, alive when I had breakfast, now join the at least 300,000 who have perished in Syria’s ghastly war. Last week I argued in this blog that if the West is not prepared to do anything more than write hand-wringing op-eds in well-known newspapers then it must talk to Assad and his Russian backers. Indeed, for Assad and his backers are responsible for most of the killing in Syria. However, what would induce Assad and Putin to talk given they clearly believe they are winning and can act with impunity?
In fact Assad, Putin and their Iranian allies are not winning the Syrian war which is in stalemate. Even with limited Russian support the regime in Damascus is not strong enough to win. However, as long as Russia and Iran continue to back Bashar Assad he cannot lose. The stalemate is made worse by a weak and incompetent West. Like the Grand Old Duke of York of old in 2013 President Obama marched his troops and those of other Western powers up the hill of ill-considered action, only to promptly march them down again. Today, Assad and Putin are betting the US will take no action beyond counter-ISIS missions before the November US presidential elections.
So, what did President Obama mean by ‘red lines’ back in 2012? The White House said that if the regime or others used chemical weapons against civilians the US would deem the regime to have crossed a red line. It is not too late even now to reinvest those ‘red lines’ with presidential political capital by warning Assad that the red-lines are still in place. In other words, if the regime continues to use barrel bombs against Syria's civilian population filled with chlorine, napalm and other chemicals as part of a truly deadly fuel-air mix there will be consequences…and mean it.
What could be the consequences? Between 1991 and 2003 America and Britain declared and enforced no fly zones over Iraq to protect the Kurdish and Shia Arab peoples in Iraq from the vengeful actions of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. Over that period both the Americans and British undertook air and missile strikes against Iraqi military targets to deter, prevent and punish Saddam.
What would the no fly zones restrict? It is now time to establish no fly zones over all Syrian cities. To ensure proportionality the American-led coalition could first agree that current air operations over Syria against ISIS would be expanded to attacks on the slow-moving regime helicopters entering self-declared zones and which are responsible for carrying up to eight barrel bombs per mission. If that fails to deter the regime following due warning a complete no fly zone could then be established banning all aircraft from the zones.
How would the no fly zones be enforced? Given President Erdogan’s rapprochement with Moscow it is unlikely that he would permit the use of Turkey’s Incirlik air base to enforce the no fly zones. Therefore, RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus would need to be the hub for air operations, reinforced by the US Sixth Fleet and the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. At present there is no US fleet carrier in the Mediterranean but operations could also be launched from the Gulf. The ability of the West to undertake such operations will be significantly enhanced over the next few years by the commissioning of the two large British aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Why would no fly zones force Assad to talk? First, it would flush the Russian role out into the open and force Moscow to make a choice. Last week Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested Russia and the US were close to undertaking joint actions over Aleppo. If this is the case ‘joint actions’ could only take place if the Russian’s themselves stop applying the tactics of Grozny to Aleppo. Second, Western action would remind Assad just how fickle Russia’s support for him actually is. If Moscow was to be offered a deal that would preserve Russian influence in the region without Bashar Assad he would be dropped by Putin faster than an empty vodka bottle in a Russian government dacha. Third, commitment to no fly zones would at last communicate not only Western resolve, but a reasoned course of Western action. Faced with a West that is finally resolved to act Assad would talk and the stuttering Geneva talks might finally begin to make headway.
This week Assad flew several Mi-24 Hind helicopters right through President Obama’s red lines. It is time for the West to block barrel bomb Bashar and for President Obama to step up to his own lines.