A new book takes a detailed look at an excruciating moment for Syria, the United States, and the world — the time in 2013 when the U.S. concluded that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons in its long running civil war.
President Barack Obama, having warned Syria not to do that, held off on a military strike. The government agreed instead to give up chemical stockpiles, though the war went on, and continues to this day.
In his book Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World, Joby Warrick reconstructs those moments using interviews, documents, and cell phone videos – and he describes pivotal moments in the war.
On what happened on one particular day when something fell from the sky
This is what happens in this northern city of Saraqib in 2013 when there’s a couple of canisters, just like tear gas canisters, that drop from a helicopter in this small town and one happens to land right in the courtyard of this family that’s just minding their own business, trying to survive the siege. And the woman of the house walks outside to a courtyard where this thing has fallen — and this lethal gas [that] turned out to be sarin seeps out and she’s immediately stricken and becomes ill.
But the amazing thing about her story is the fact that her body ends up being transported into Turkey because her family is trying to get medical attention for her — and because she dies in Turkey, her body is preserved. And so when the United Nations is going around months later trying to investigate these reports of a chemical attack, they have this incredible resource, a body — evidence — so they can conduct an autopsy and try to find out exactly what killed her. And that’s what they do.
On who the United Nations sent in to Syria to investigate
The person they recruited to head this mission is this retired professor whose name is Åke Sellström. He has this extensive background with chemical warfare. He knows the physiology, knows the weapons themselves. So he is sent into Syria for what is really a mission impossible, to try to convince the Syrians to let him conduct a real investigation, to go to places, to talk to victims. And he gets there — and, predictably, the Syrians don’t want to have anything to do with him. They invite him in, then they essentially box him in his hotel. They’re refusing to cooperate. They refuse even to admit they have a chemical weapons program. So he’s at a dead end. And it looks like this mission is a failure.
On what Sellström was able to do
As he is in Syria, almost giving up hope, thinking that his mission is over, he goes to bed in his hotel one night, the night of the 20th, 21st of August 2013. And while he’s asleep, this incredible chemical weapons attack takes place in the suburbs about five miles from his hotel. This is the big one that listeners will remember where more than 1,000 people were killed by sarin. And it happens to take place when this team of investigators are in the country to look at this very problem — and they push right away for the Syrians to let them go and investigate, collect samples and prove to everyone, the world what really happened there.
On United States, under the administration of President Obama, considering how to respond to this attack
For the United States, for the White House, the Obama administration, there’s a different pressure because Obama, as we know, had declared a red line for the chemical use in Syria. They had what they thought was evidence that this is really a chemical weapons attack. But here was this Swedish professor in the way — because he was on the ground in Syria. And so Obama began pushing very hard for the U.N. to pull him out.
On talk that President Obama was ready to strike Syria at that moment and would have — except for this one guy who declined to leave
The existence of this U.N. team becomes an obsessive matter for the president himself. He raises it with his staff. He goes to the U.N. Sec. Gen. Ban Ki Moon, at the time — says, get these guys out at once. There are some things that are weighing on the president’s mind at this time. First of all, is this whole specter of weapons of mass destruction in a war in the Middle East. So he wants to make sure that his intelligence is correct, but he is absolutely intent on launching these missiles if he can get this inspector out. But what unfolds in the next few days is Sellström remains in Syria and continues to do his work. He finds his evidence. And as time elapses, the momentum for a strike starts to fade.
On the practical effects of the United States backing away from a strike on Syria
The results are really interesting because, in a way, this becomes part of a larger failure in Syria. We don’t stop the war. We don’t end the suffering. We don’t stem the tide of refugees and this massive humanitarian crisis. And yet at the same time, because of the deal, we do manage to get 3,500 tons of really dangerous stuff out of Syria, which is remarkable in the fact that, first of all, Syria didn’t initially acknowledge had any of it. But because of this deal [between Syria and Russia to remove chemical weapons], they were forced to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, allow inspectors in the country, and they eliminated about 90 to 95 percent of the entire stockpile, plus the production equipment. And that has never happened in the history of arms control. In the middle of a civil war, we managed to get a country to unilaterally disarm. It wasn’t a complete disarmament. They kept back some of it, as we later discovered, but some terrible things that could have been used to kill lots of Syrians, or smuggled out of a country, which is the other scary scenario — lots of folks would have loved to have gotten their hands on even a few liters of sarin to use in a terrorist attack — that stuff is taken out of the country during the war and destroyed at sea.