Trump administration ‘red lines’ are out of focus, in Syria and North Korea: Analysis

A Syrian boy holds an oxygen mask on an infant at a makeshift hospital after a reported gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on Jan. 22. (Hasan Mohamed/AFP)
A Syrian boy holds an oxygen mask on an infant at a makeshift hospital after a reported gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on Jan. 22. (Hasan Mohamed/AFP)

By Adam Taylor
As images spread of a deadly chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on April 4, an emotional President Trump blamed the tragedy on the mistakes of his predecessor. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump said in a statement.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump said at a news conference at the White House the following day.The president soon backed up his words with actions: The U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield, marking the first and so far only direct U.S. assault on Assad’s forces since the conflict began.

To his supporters, Trump’s swift military reaction was just one part of a muscular new U.S. foreign policy in which Washington was willing and ready to use force when appropriate. And it wasn’t just Assad being put on notice, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un had found out earlier.

“It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted last January after Pyongyang claimed to be in the “final stages” of testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

As the president’s first year in office draws to a close, however, his own hard positions on Syria and North Korea seem to be falling out of focus. The administration, which has avoided using the term “red line” itself, has frequently spoken out with warnings to Damascus and Pyongyang — but the vague nature of the threats has helped render some warnings toothless.

Kori Schake, a military analyst at the Hoover Institution who worked in a number of White House roles during the George W. Bush administration, said that in both Syria and North Korea, it appeared that the administration was trying to shift lines previously set by the president — a move that could create problems for the administration.

“Things are being done by adversaries that the president said he would not stand for, so it will call the president’s credibility into question,” Schake said. “It may also encourage adversaries to test U.S. responses to other U.S. guarantees.”

A spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council did not respond to questions about whether there were lines for U.S. policy in Syria and North Korea, or if these thresholds had changed recently.

Recent comments by top administration officials, however, hinted at a shift. During an appearance in Paris on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at length about recent chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold in suburban Damascus.

It was a rare public admission that despite last year’s U.S. military action, chemical weapons attacks on civilians were still a recurring feature of the Syrian conflict — though it was generally chlorine gas that was used, a cheap weapon that was less deadly than the sarin nerve agent that prompted U.S. action last year.

The attacks in Eastern Ghouta “raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad may be continuing to use chemical weapons against his own people,” Tillerson said, adding that nations needed to “put the use of chemical weapons to an end.”

The same day in Washington, CIA Director Mike Pompeo appeared to draw a new line in the sand in the ongoing standoff with North Korea over its weapons testing — the testing of multiple intercontinental missiles at once, which would better emulate the simultaneous launches that would be required by North Korea in the event of a real conflict.

“That increases the risk to America, and that’s the very mission set that President Trump has directed the government to figure out a way to make sure it never occurs,” Pompeo told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute.

In both the Syrian conflict and the ongoing standoff with North Korea, the Trump administration is often restricted in its decision-making — not only by the policy choices of previous administrations but also by the interests of other world powers, as well as the limits of technology and geography.

However, the administration has also been quick to issue warnings when foreign nations cross its path. In North Korea, for instance, the Trump administration has suggested that it would use military force to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon attached to a missile — a capability that some analysts believe North Korea already has or is on the verge of getting.

“Pompeo is trying to redraw the red lines to save the president from the embarrassing statements he has made over the past 12 months,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear security at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “I doubt anyone in this administration will ever admit that North Korea has the ability to strike the United States, because the president said it wouldn’t happen, and contradicting him will get that person fired.”

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Pompeo’s remarks about North Korea on Tuesday represented a “pink line” rather than a real warning. Although Pompeo seemed to be threatening Pyongyang, Acton added, it was “somewhat ambiguous.”

When it comes to chemical weapons use in Syria, it has long been unclear where exactly the threshold is at which the Trump administration would act. In April, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that if “you gas a baby” or “if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people,” the president would probably respond. Hours later, Spicer issued a new statement that said nothing had changed in U.S. policy and that the president “would not be telegraphing his military responses.”

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said that the use of chlorine gas this week provided an opportunity for the United States and its partners to act. “If Trump, France and Britain are to uphold the international norm not to use this chemical, they need to do something to punish the Syrian government,” Landis said.

In his comments on Tuesday, however, Tillerson saved the majority of his ire for Russia, rather than its allies in the Assad government. Asked whether Tillerson was indicating a new “red line” on the use of chlorine gas, a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told a reporter that he was “absolutely not” implying that.

Although Trump has spoken broadly against chemical weapons attacks, Tillerson’s comments reflected a key distinction in how these weapons are used in Syria. In the past, administration officials like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have refrained from saying whether chlorine attacks would be treated differently from sarin attacks.

“Even though officials have been loath to admit it, the prohibition against chemical weapons use in Syria has in the past been understood to only pertain to highly lethal nerve agents such as sarin but not the easily produced and far less deadly chlorine,” said Tobias Schneider, an independent analyst who has tracked numerous reported chlorine attacks over the past year.

The Trump administration has good reason to be wary of setting new limits. Although President Obama initially uttered the words in unprepared remarks, and the line was never clearly defined, his “red line” remark came to define his Syria policy in the public eye — much to the ire of those in the administration.

But in the Trump administration’s efforts to avoid Obama’s mistake, Trump had ended up overpromising and underdelivering on foreign policy in a similar way as Obama and his other predecessors, said Brian Katulis, a senior Middle East analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

“I think it’s a mistake for any administration to draw red lines,” said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. “By trumpeting a minor strike in Syria and drawing red lines on Korea, the Trump administration has repeated Obama’s mistake. They are now ignoring the breach of those red lines because it was a political talking point rather than a strategic one, just as was the case with Obama.”