Remembering Ghouta: Obama's meaningless red line

Remembering Ghouta: Obama's meaningless red line
Comment: Obama's 'red line' morphed into a 'red herring' and could then become a green light for Assad to continue his genocidal war, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
21 Aug, 2017
Obama reacted to the attack with characteristic hesitance and indecisiveness [Getty]

Winston Churchill once remarked about appeasement that it's like someone feeding a crocodile and hoping that it will eat them last.

This was true of the threat posed to the world by an expansive superpower like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but when it comes to the Syrian civil war and its allies, the appeasers do so without any fear of being consumed by the war that has been unleashed by Assad and his allies. 

They do so without the fear of ever having to face death squads, or torture dungeons, or missiles, or barrel bombs, or napalm - or, of course, poison gas. Only nameless and faceless Syrians must suffer these things.

It was on this day four years ago, and a week after Sisi made his brutal name on the world stage by massacring hundreds of people at Rabaa and Nadha, that Bashar al-Assad poisoned to death over 1,000 innocent people with sarin gas in the Ghouta area of Damascus. 

Sarin, it ought to be noted, brings a particularly brutal form death, and before it strips of you of your life, it strips you of dignity. This is precisely its function - cruelty and terror. 

Those of us who live far away from such horrors can barely begin to understand the personal aftereffects of this violent chemical weapon on those who survive. Pictures and eyewitness testimonies of whole families lying dead in their beds were widespread, while survivors spoke of stepping over bodies trying to look for friends and loved ones. 

The calculation had been made long before Ghouta that the US would not decisively intervene to aid the Syrian opposition in overthrowing Assad

However, while Assad's 2013 Ghouta attack was a particularly vicious one, it must be remembered that it was but one atrocity within the much larger atrocity that is his genocidal war against those Syrians who revolted against his tyrannical regime. Most of the murder, maiming, torture and trauma in Syria is carried out by so-called "conventional weapons", but it was Barack Obama who famously said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "red line" – one which, if crossed, would see US action taken against the perpetrators.  

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When this red line was finally crossed at Ghouta, it turned out to be little more than a red herring. One of the most perverse narratives concerning the events after Ghouta was that there was a "drive to war" by the US and its allies. At its very worst, this narrative produced conspiracy theories, mostly emanating from the alt-Left and alt-Right, which claimed that the Ghouta attack was a "false flag" used to justify western "regime change" against the victim, Assad. 

Of course, these conspiracy theories have been firmly debunked, but even the conventional narrative seems to in some way accept that the US failing to live up to its promises to the Syrian opposition was in some way a triumph for "peace". Firstly, following Ghouta, there was no "drive to war" - Obama reacted to the attack with characteristic hesitance and indecisiveness. 

In truth, the calculation had been made long before Ghouta that the US would not decisively intervene to aid the Syrian opposition in overthrowing Assad. However, if Obama was to be taken at his word, the "red line" that was crossed at Ghouta might be the impetus needed for the US and NATO to act as they had done in Libya to avert further mass murder. 

This is what was rendered by a collection of so-called "peace" activists, Assad supporters and "anti-war" groups as a "drive to war", as if acting to protect Syrians in any manner would've been a greater injustice than atrocities such as Ghouta.

The Kerry-Lavrov deal effectively meant that Assad had the green light to continue his massacre using 'conventional weapons' [AFP]

The closest any "drive to war" came to materialising, was when UK Prime Minister David Cameron - one of the key proponents of NATO intervention on behalf of the Libyan revolution - held a vote in the House of Commons on whether the UK would aid the US in any strikes on Assad regime targets following Ghouta. 

The vote failed, mostly due to the squalid politicking of then Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband who thought he could exploit weaknesses in Cameron's coalition government. 

Watching Labour MPs who had voted for the catastrophic Iraq war based on the spectre of mythical weapons of mass destruction, trooping through the lobby to vote against protecting Syrians who had been the victim of real WMDs was sickening. Cameron, the alleged warmonger intent on overthrowing Assad as he had done Gaddafi, respected the decision of parliament and said no more about it. 

In the US, intervention following Ghouta was suggested in a bill that didn't even make the floor of the Senate. There was no real "drive to war" – military action was not favoured by Obama. Even when it looked like the US might be expected to act, John Kerry went out of his way to reassure Russia and Assad's allies that any such action would be "unbelievably small". 

What followed was not a drive for some US-driven fantasy war of regime change against Assad, but rather a Russian-driven drive to continue Assad's very real war of regime preservation. With the US allegedly poised to strike, far from the prophets of doom who very conveniently croak about World War III whenever the very notion of action against Assad is brought up, Russia didn't react with threats of military violence to defend its ally from a potential US strike. 

Rather, it came up with a plan that simultaneously got Obama out of having to act against Assad, while allowing Assad to get away with Ghouta entirely unscathed.

The Kerry-Lavrov deal, as it was called, allowed Assad to allegedly get rid of his chemical weapons stockpiles under supervision

The Kerry-Lavrov deal, as it was called, allowed Assad to allegedly get rid of his chemical weapons stockpiles under supervision. Some people perversely called this deal "peace", but it was merely a manner through which Obama's red line that morphed into a red herring, could now become a green light – a green light for Assad to continue his genocidal war by conventional means. 

As Syrian revolutionary activist and Ghouta survivor Dani Qappani put it, "If a murderer kills someone with a hammer, you don't just take away the hammer and leave the murderer unpunished". 

But this is precisely what happened. Russia and the US could act as if they were dealing with Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles, which are of course merely one aspect of his Iranian-supplemented, Russian-provided arsenal, as well as posing as "peacemakers", while the barrel bombs and missiles were falling on Syrians. 

Even on its own terms, the Kerry-Lavrov deal failed dramatically, assuming it was ever meant to succeed. Yet barely anyone has mentioned the great crime that was the US-Russia theatrics that followed Ghouta. When 130 people were murdered by Assad using sarin gas again at Khan Sheikhun earlier this year, the Trump administration at least responded with a warning that it wouldn't tolerate Assad using chemical weapons. But, as we've seen subsequently, no US administration cares about the genocidal destruction unleashed by Assad and his allies in its totality.

Read more: French intelligence blames Syrian regime for deadly chemical attack

It's of no surprise that following the brutality of Ghouta and the lack of any meaningful action to protect Syrians and aid rebels in fighting Assad, the region was partially eclipsed by the black banner of the Islamic State group, trading, as it does, on the perceived indifference of the world to Muslim suffering. 

That this entity has struck at the heart of Europe is certainly not in any sense a comeuppance, but there is a brutal irony at the heart of it. All this poison - whether sarin gas attacks in Ghouta or vehicle attacks on civilians in Barcelona - seeps out from the open wound that is Assad. 

As Qappani summed up, "[Western] governments have pretended to be interested in Syria, but they have never cared about the lives lost at Ghouta or the hundreds of thousands killed by Assad in general in the way they do about the innocents killed in Europe, most recently Barcelona." 

Today marks the fourth anniversary not just of a single monstrous attack on innocent people, but on the day where the world said that the hopes, dreams and lives of Syrians don't matter and seemingly never will. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.