Ukraine War Began With American Weakness on Syria
‘The first step in this Ukraine process was Crimea. It started after President Obama drew a red line in Syria about chemical weapons, and then when it was crossed he did nothing. That was an awful sign.’
President Putin’s announcement that Russia will bring experienced fighters from Syria to wage its war in Ukraine underscores a key point: The conflict around Kiev and Mariupol is the same war that was fought in Aleppo and Damascus.
Someone who has been calling attention to the connection knows Russia, Ukraine, and the Middle East well: Natan Sharansky, the Ukraine-born Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician. In Mr. Sharansky’s telling, the story of Russian aggression against Ukraine begins with the Obama-Biden administration and Congress failing to act after the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, used chemical weapons.
“The first step in this Ukraine process was Crimea. It started after President Obama drew a red line in Syria about chemical weapons, and then when it was crossed he did nothing. That was an awful sign,” Mr. Sharansky told Tablet. “The immediate results were that Putin brought his armies to Syria and established a base there — in fact, he got the keys to Syria’s airspace — and then he went into Crimea. He checked whether the West would react, and when it didn’t he not only took Crimea but he also started this separatist movement in the Donbas, saying that it all was historical Russia. So that was the beginning.”
Mr. Sharansky made a similar point in a Wall Street Journal opinion article: “Putin saw the U.S. retreat in Syria as a sign of weakness and exploited the opportunity to advance his project of renewing Russia’s great-power status. In 2014 he invaded Crimea. In 2015 he established a military base in Khmeimim, Syria, and began air strikes to support Mr. Assad’s forces there.”
Even the New York Times now admits it: “Impunity for War Crimes in Syria Casts a Grim Shadow Over Ukraine.” This is an actual Times news headline from March 15, 2022.
It’s worth a quick look back at what happened. On August 20, 2012, President Obama answered a question from Chuck Todd of NBC News, “On Syria, obviously, this is a very tough issue. I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down. So far, he hasn’t gotten the message, and instead has double downed in violence on his own people.”
Mr. Obama went on: “I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria, it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
In response to a follow-up question from Mr. Todd, Mr. Obama repeated the “red line” phrase a second time: “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.”
Mr. Assad did use chemical weapons. On August 30, 2013, the White House issued a “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons,” asserting in part, “A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children.”
Rather than acting under his authority as commander in chief, Mr. Obama made the fateful decision to seek authorization from Congress. No such authorization was forthcoming. After the Iraq War, plenty of Republicans and congressional Democrats at the time were highly skeptical of being pulled into a Middle East conflict based on claims about weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, later recalled Mr. Obama talking about how the debate could play out. “The thing is,” Mr. Obama said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism — everyone will see they have no votes.”
Mr. Rhodes writes, “I realized then that he was comfortable with either outcome. If we won authorization, he’d be in a strong position to act in Syria. If we didn’t, then we would potentially end the cycle of American wars of regime change in the Middle East.”
Regime-change wars have their costs, but American inaction also has its costs, as the 13.4 million Syrian refugees and the 2.9 million refugees from Ukraine can attest.
How many more multimillion-refugee crises will it take to drive a stake through the heart of Obama-Biden-style weak non-interventionism?