Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The distraction of red lines in Syria



You wake suddenly, disorientated. You’re crying uncontrollably but not sad. Sprawling out of bed you notice your entire face is leaking.

The nose gushing, the mouth drooling, the eyes still crying. After a few unsteady steps, you bend over and start to heave. It’s everywhere.

A few more steps and the rest of you splits open; your bladder and bowels give way. Chest constricting, you fling yourself forward. But by now your vision has started to blur, making it harder to see hallways, doorways, loved ones.

You know when you’re on the floor though. You feel it as you thrash yourself about like a demoniac: heaving, wrenching, convulsing. And then you’re not. You’re still. Paralysed. Inevitably it comes.


Sarin gas was originally used for exterminating bugs before we realised we could turn it on our selves. The agent works by targeting the nervous system, blocking the important enzyme that allows our nerves to know when a bodily function has been carried out. James Hamblin from The Atlantic explains what happens when our body loses these ‘off’ switches. Because of its cruel effectiveness, even the Nazis baulked at its military use, fearing a chemical retaliation from the Allies. However there is a growing body of evidence that the Assad regime used this or a similar agent in the Eastern suburbs of Damascus last Wednesday morning.

The evidence is strong, growing but not yet conclusive. World leaders still prefix their denunciations with the word ‘alleged’. Also, while sarin is often tipped as the likely agent the available, footage is not a perfect match for a sarin attack.  A UN inspection team was actually staying in Damascus when the footage began to appear online. The Syrian Government has finally given in to significant international pressure to allow this team access to the site to determine conclusively whether it was a chemical weapon attack and what agent(s) were used. Even Russia, for whom Syria is a staunch ally and offers a unique strategic foothold in the Middle East, agreed on this.

This is about the only thing the veto carrying, permanent member on the Security Council supports. The UN seems hobbled by Security Council politicking, which is only intensifying pressure on Barrack Obama to do something. Diplomatic avenues, particular getting Russia (and China) to cut Assad loose should not be overlooked amongst all the talk of intervention.

However Obama backed himself into something of a corner when he said last year that the use of chemical weapons was “a red line” to rethinking military intervention in Syria. In fact this line was likely crossed before the recent alleged atrocity. As early as April of this year Miguel E. Rodriguez, assistant to the president and director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, could write to select senators that, ‘Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.’

His response, or lack thereof, has drawn criticism. Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan tweeted: "US experts discovered that the red colour is actually pink. #ObamaRedLines" Hawkish members of Congress are getting louder for armed intervention. The respected war writer Fred Kaplan thinks we’re only weeks away from Obama reluctantly staging an aerial campaign modelled on the NATO intervention in Kosovo.

Maybe. However if you read through the transcript of Obama’s most recent interview on this subject, it wouldn’t be his first choice. The constitutional lawyer in him is nervous. Georgetown University professor Rosa Brooks has an article on why this might be.  And it is clear Obama is conscious of the nightmare of Iraq, where the US suffered a lot for very little and most recently in Libya, where despite attempting to lead from behind, still ended up with its personnel killed and strategic objectives slipping away. 

Those who have accused the US of arrogance might actually be seeing a humbler foreign policy when he says, “sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”

In some ways the intense focus on chemical weapons and red lines is diversionary. Granted, the truth of what happened in Damascus should be established. But what of the 100,000+ people who have been killed already? Is being gunned down in terror really that much preferable to being gassed to death?  Is it somehow easier on the International Community’s conscience to think of families being ripped apart by artillery shells than dying from chemical warfare? And what of the 1.9 million people who have already poured out of Syria into neighbouring countries, or the 4.25 million people have been displaced internally. Surely the destruction of human life and the misery inflicted is of paramount concern; how it is inflicted remains secondary.

Or in the 21st century is that the best our squabbling, fragmented international community can say. ‘Kill as many as you like but only weapons from this approved list.’ Heck, even the Hutus that participated in the Rwandan genocide sail under that low bar. 

No. Enough blood has been spilt to paint a thousand red lines. The real question is would an intervention actually improve things? To answer in the affirmative you would have to prove (with reasonable certainty) that Assad can be toppled without wholesale destruction, identify what credible leadership will replace him, show how minorities will be safeguarded from reprisal attacks, outline a plan for sidelining the genuinely scary elements opposing Assad and ensure a potential influx of weapons wouldn’t fall into the (many and open) wrong hands. In short, answer the question Gen. David Petraeus asked as another Middle Eastern country was falling apart: “Tell me how this ends.”

We are yet to have a convincing, comprehensive answer by any world leader.  And the suffering continues.

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major. He won the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for his essay 'Catholic and Aboriginal listening revolutions'.

Red line image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Syria, chemical weapons, Obama, UN Security Council, Russia, warfare



submit a comment

Existing comments

An enlightening article with a sensible and balanced conclusion, Evan. Sadly, there is no magic wand which can undo what has already happened in Syria. The Assad family were allowed to stay in power for a very long time by both West and East. The transition to Bashar theoretically ushered in the opportunity for change. He passed that by. Barack Obama has played things very sensibly. Western intervention in Syria would open a window of opportunity for Israel to attack Iran, Syria's one ally in the Middle East. The main source of funding for the jihadists comes from within Saudi Arabia, whose citizens were always the financial lifeline for Al Quaida. With friends like Israel and the Saudis, Obama doesn't need more enemies in the Middle East. He and General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been very sensible at a time when there is vast emotional pressure from countries such as France, whose colonial policy in regard to Syria bears considerable blame for the current problem, to intervene. After the debacle of the "War on Terror" (sic) I would hate to see the West remake the errors it did in Iraq in Syria. "Is there then no solution?" Sadly, no quick, simple and effective one.

Edward F | 26 August 2013  

And how is Australia’s political debate about refugees and asylum seekers , a lesser evil than what's happing in Syria? It's not. All evil begins with this belief: that another’s existence is less precious than mine.

peter bohm | 27 August 2013  

Diplomatic intervention, yes. Military intervention, no.

When will the US learn that military interventions make the world a more dangerous place?

John Wotherspoon | 27 August 2013  

Thanks Evan for this compassionate and insightful reflection. Marie

Marie O'Connor sgs | 27 August 2013  

Great article Evan.

Justin | 27 August 2013