Obama Warns Syria On Chemical Weapons Use

President Obama issued a warning to Syria today over its chemical weapons stockpiles.

In an appearance today in the White House Briefing Room, President Obama set out what he called a “red line” that Syria must not cross when it comes to its chemical weapons stockpiles:

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday threatened military action against Syria if there was evidence that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was moving its stocks of chemical or biological weapons. It was Mr. Obama’s most direct warning of American intervention in Syria, where Mr. Assad’s military is fighting an 18-month-old rebellion.

“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Mr. Obama said in an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room. “We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us.”

The president said he was deeply troubled by the possibility that the safekeeping of such weapons was now at risk in the Assad government’s increasingly harsh effort to crush the uprising. “That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria,” Mr. Obama declared. “It concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us.”

Syria is believed to have accumulated huge supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide. Mr. Assad and other members of his government have said that the weapons would not be used except in the case of foreign intervention —a threat that has been interpreted as an attempt to deter any attack by Western nations.

The United States, Mr. Obama said, was closely monitoring the situation for any signs that weapons had been moved. While he did not say there was evidence, he said that, given the volatility of the crisis, he could not be absolutely confident that Mr. Assad’s government would not try to deploy these weapons.

“At this point,” Mr. Obama said, “the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant.”

The fate of Syria’s chemical weapons has been the 900lb gorilla in the room that nobody talks about ever since this rebellion began in February of last year. Most recently, the Syrian government said that it would not use those weapons on Syrian citizens, a response to fears that have been raised by many in the West that Assad would let loose on the opposition of his back was against the wall. At the same time, though, the Syrians have said that they will consider using the weapons if attacked by outside sources.  Leaving that aside, though, the real concern is what happens to those weapons in the event of a rapid collapse of the Syrian regime. Israel is just across the border on the Golon Heights. Hezbollah is just across the Lebanese border in the Bekaa Valley. And, Iran certainly will take an interest in the fate of the weapons. Another possibility, of course, is that a rapid collapse is followed by an all-out civil war among Syria’s ethnic groups, with whoever gets control of the weapons having few compunctions about who they use them against.

I’ve long thought that the fate of these weapons would be the issue that could propel the United States and the West into acting in Syria whether they want to or not. For better or worse, we simple cannot afford to let those weapons fall into the hands of terrorists or other unsavory forces, spurred into action in part because of the concerns of friendly Arab nations as well as Israel. Indeed, earlier this month Jordan’s King Abdullah described the Syrian chemical weapons issue as something that concerns everyone in the region:

King Abdullah II of Jordan expressed his concern over the situation in neighboring Syria, and especially over the potential use of Syria’s chemical weapons.

In an interview with Charlie Rose on “CBS This Morning,” Abdullah was asked if Syrian strongman Bashar Assad would use chemical weapons against his rivals. “I hope to God that he wouldn’t because I think that would be a tripwire for many nations in the international community,” Abdullah said.

“The chemical weapons (are) something that scares everybody,” he added. “What scares most of us is the chemical weapons falling into rebel hands. And who are those rebels? And obviously the use of chemical weapons against innocent people.”

Abdullah repeated his “tripwire” statement, in an apparent warning to Assad that use of the weapons would cause other countries to intervene militarily in the fighting: “…There’s so many levels of attention against Syria. So as we’re working on the political level, trying to find a solution, if he uses chemical weapons, is that the tripwire that all of a sudden… the international community has to react? So I hope he understands that this would be a major miscalculation. More complicated than that, what happens if some of those storage depots fall into rebel hands?”

Abdullah said he thinks the weapon sites need to be secured by the international community but also appeared to warn against an invasion in response to the use of chemical weapons. “I hope that you’re not looking at it as a reason for intervention,” he said. “I think it’s a crisis where we have to react. And the problem – I am weary of people looking at it as a reason – in other words, I hope people are not planning to sort of push whoever there may be to make sure that those storage sites fall into… the minute you cross the borders then no plan goes the way you planned it. So the minute you cross the border with armed forces or the military, then it’s anybody’s guess what the outcome is.”

There have been some reports that U.S. and Jordanian forces have been putting together plans for operations that would be meant to secure the weapons in the event of a collapse of the regime, and even if that’s not accurate I’ve got to assume that there are plans of this kind out there somewhere. Regardless of what one thinks about intervening in the Syrian Civil War, and I oppose it, allowing those weapons to become insecure and fall into terrorist hands would be far too huge of a mistake that I think the world would come to regret at some point. Obviously, the ideal solution is for Assad to step down peacefully, but it seems incredibly unlikely that will happen at this point.

Photo via The Levant Post

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. PogueMahone says:

    Interesting backdrop. As election politics back home in America have been focused on whether or not the female body has a magic on/off switch for legitimate rape…

    Meanwhile, President Obama is busy being President.

    Just sayin’.

  2. @PogueMahone:

    That is the advantage of being the incumbent.

  3. PogueMahone says:

    @Doug Mataconis: That is the advantage of being the incumbent.

    And the advantage of not being a Republican. Wouldn’t you say?

  4. Carson says:

    The best thing would be to back up the talk with some drones. They’ll get the message.
    “Go ahead. Make my day”

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Obama is not the first liberal to be mugged by reality. He won’t be the last.

  6. @Tsar Nicholas:

    You realize you’re talking about the guy who authorized the raid to take out Somalian pirates, authorized the raid to take out bin Laden, authorized the use of drones in several countries including the raid that took out an American citizen and his son, authorized American involvement in the allied effort to aid Libyan rebels, and has doubled down on the sanctions against Iran that GWB imposed?

    I don’t support a lot of those things, but to characterize Obama as weak on foreign policy simply does not comport with reality. If anything, I would say that he’s too adventerious

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    And how is he being “mugged” by this? it seems to me he’s being pretty proactive, and is–as the article states–drawing a line in the sand as a clear warning.

    Perhaps you have a different definition of the word mugging as the rest of the world.

    Or perhaps this is just your typical armchair bravado.

  8. Oh, great – another American president claiming that a country has WMDs, and therefore we have to invade. Yeah, I know, he’s been told it’s a slam dunk. Everyone knows that Assad has WMDs. Blah blah blah.

    I don’t understand why Obama thinks we will fall for the WMD excuse again. More lies from an administration doing its corporate masters’ bidding.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Obama is not the first liberal to be mugged by reality.

    Hmm. Tough guy Republican John McCain wrung his hands and told us Bin Laden could not be touched if he was in Pakistan. Obama said he would take him out, and he did.

    I think you are the one who has been mugged by reality. Apparently you are still in the “denial” stage…

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    To be honest I think the president and King Abdullah need to be more explicit. “Red line” and “tripwire” can have any number of interpretations, everything from a stern demarche to ICBMs and I don’t see that the diction as strategic ambiguity so much as indecision and I suspect that Asaad would see it the same way.

    At this moment it does not look as though either China or Russia would support Chapter VII action against Syria, especially for moving its chemical weapons and possibly even for using them against its citizens. Neither China’s nor Russia’s hands are completely clean in this particular area so I suspect they would be sensitive about it.

  11. @Donald Sensing:

    Umm, Donald. The Syrians have acknowledged that they have chemical and biological weapons. It is, perhaps, one of the world’s worst kept secrets.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    If only Tsar Nicholas was even touched, much less mugged, by reality, his comments would be radically different…

  13. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    That was pretty much the situation with Saddam Hussein as well. Only he’d actually deployed WMDs against Iran and his own citizens.

    Question is when we secure WMDs of Iraqi origin in Syria will the truth be acknowledge and the lies be quieted?

  14. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    The Halabja poison gas attack took place in 1988. Saddam had WMD, the operative word being “had”, as in “once upon a time.”

    The lie was “We know he has them and we know where they are.” Sadly a lot of suckers such as yourself bought it. The price tag for that blunder was vast indeed.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Question is when we secure WMDs of Iraqi origin in Syria will the truth be acknowledge and the lies be quieted?

    Some people will always tightly cling to their fantasies…it is certainly understandable, of course, as there must be some kind of explanation to excuse the Iraq Disaster…

  16. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: The lie was “We know he has them and we know where they are.”

    Care to offer a link to back that up? And applying the jukeboxgrad principle, please provide a link showing a Bush administration official using those exact words.

    Personally, I’d accept a paraphrased version of that, but juke has a major hair across his ass about that kind of thing.

    I was under the impression that WikiLeaks confirmed that WMDs were found in Iraq. Not huge quantities, but certainly more than Saddam was supposed to have — i.e., zero.

  17. JohnMcC says:

    @anjin-san: And, my friend Anjin-San, we remember which Democratic President did absolutely nothing about Saddam’s use of WMD against his own people…. Oops, Wait!…..

  18. MattT says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Donald Rumsfeld: “We do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons…”

    “We know where they are [Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction]. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.”


  19. JKB says:

    @anjin-san: @An Interested Party:

    So you are certain that when we or others get ahold of these Syrian WMDs they won’t trace back to Iraq?

  20. Wayne says:

    The “tripwire” was stated not only the use of WMD but “movement” of such weapons. The “movement” part worries me since it is such a low standard therefore can be use a flimsy excuse to go in. I wouldn’t put it pass Obama to go to war to help his election. I know many disagree but IMO Russia and China would not set by idly by this time around.