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A Real 'Red Line' This Time: Trump Warns Russia It Will Hit Assad If He Uses Chemical Arms

A Real 'Red Line' This Time: Trump Warns Russia It Will Hit Assad If He Uses Chemical Arms

By    |   Friday, 24 August 2018 08:31 PM

The U.S. has information that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may use chemical weapons as he seeks to recapture one of the country’s last rebel-held areas, and has told Russia that it’s ready to respond with stronger military action than it has used against Assad’s regime in the past.

The message was delivered by National Security Adviser John Bolton to his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, at a meeting in Geneva on Thursday, according to four people familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be identified because the content of talks hasn’t been publicly disclosed.

President Donald Trump has said in the past that he’ll punish Assad for any further use of chemical weapons, after ordering two limited strikes in similar circumstances since taking office early last year. But the latest warning is more specific, and it comes on the eve of what may be one of the bloodiest campaigns in Syria’s civil war.

This latest threat is sure once again to summon up memories of former President Barack Obama's empty "red line" threat against Syria over the nation's use of chemical weapons.

On August 20, 2012, Obama used the phrase "red line" to warn Syria's military against any more use of chemical weapons.

"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," Obama said. "That would change my equation."

A year later, Syrian forces killed more than 1,400 people with sarin gas, a particularly horrifying weapon that can cause paralysis, convulsions, or death.

Obama didn’t respond immediately. Instead, after a month he agreed to a deal with Russia to remove and destroy 600 metric tons of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. There have been repeated chemical attacks on civilians since then.

The phrase was much ridiculed after many critics said it was an empty threat. Candidate Donald Trump often slammed Obama for it during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Republican Sen. John McCain said the red line was "apparently written in disappearing ink," due to the perception the red line had been crossed with no action.

Obama said that he was misunderstood.

"I didn't set a red line," Obama said. "The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war," a reference to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

At the time, Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons was the world’s third-largest. In 2013, it was 10 times greater than the CIA’s 2002 estimate of Iraq’s chemical weapons stash, and 50 times larger than the arsenal Libya declared it had in late 2011, according to Politico.

In April, the United States launched 105 missiles at three Syrian targets to punish the regime for killing more than 40 people in an April 7, 2018, chlorine attack. That was the second time Trump authorized strikes on Syria after a chemical attack.

Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, are currently deploying around the northwestern province of Idlib. That’s the only remaining area where the rebels -- now dominated by jihadists from al-Qaeda and other groups -- have a significant presence.

There are estimated to be tens of thousands of fighters there, many of them evacuated to Idlib under cease-fire arrangements as the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance gradually regained control over other parts of Syria.

Symbolic Strikes

That advance represented a defeat for the U.S. and its Western and Gulf allies, which have backed rebel groups throughout the seven-year war. They’ve now largely given up on the goal of toppling Assad, and are focusing instead on curbing Iranian influence in Syria. The U.S. still has about 2,000 troops in northeast Syria, allied with Kurdish groups who are seeking autonomy from Damascus.

The U.S.-Russian talks in Geneva also addressed topics including the possible removal of American troops from a military base on the Syria-Iraq border, or their cooperation with Russian forces nearby, according to the people familiar with the talks. No agreement was reached on the conditions under which that could happen, they said. The U.S. also rejected a Russian proposal for oil sanctions on Iran to be suspended as part of a broader settlement in Syria, the people said.

The two previous American attacks on Syria were considered largely symbolic and did little damage to Assad’s military capacity. In April 2017, U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea fired about 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase which had allegedly been used during a chemical attack. A year later, the U.K. and France joined the U.S. in carrying out multiple airstrikes against government sites.

In the latter case, Defense Secretary James Mattis persuaded the president not to authorize a wider attack, two of the people familiar with the talks said. In the event of another chemical incident, Trump will not be dissuaded, they said.

Assad and his ally Russia say that no chemical weapons were used by the Syrian military, and that the incidents were staged by rebel groups to provide a pretext for Western military intervention.

Material from Bloomberg news service was used in this story.

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The U.S. has information that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may use chemical weapons as he seeks to recapture one of the country's last rebel-held areas, and has told Russia that it's ready to respond with stronger military action than it has used against Assad's regime...
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Friday, 24 August 2018 08:31 PM
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