A U.S.-led coalition began advancing on Mosul Monday morning, aiming to take the Iraqi city back from the Islamic State. But in addition to normal security concerns, the coalition fears they might face chemical weapons during their incursion.
A Pentagon spokesman said last month that ISIS is “dead set” on using chemical weapons, and that forces should expect their use during the Mosul attack. In preparation, the U.S. provided Iraqi security forces with 40,000 gas masks. But Kurdish peshmerga forces are still trying to equip themselves, and have asked the UK for help.
At least some of the chemical weapons in ISIS’s possession come from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s undeclared stockpile, making this the latest catastrophic consequence of Obama’s failed foreign policy in Syria.
The peshmerga claim ISIS has already used chemical weapons on them at least 19 times. And they’re not alone—according to the U.S. intelligence community, ISIS has been using chemicals like mustard and chlorine agents in Iraq and Syria since the first half of 2015. It’s no surprise that an organization like ISIS, with so little respect for human life, would be willing to engage in chemical warfare. But how did they acquire these weapons in the first place?
It All Began With Obama’s ‘Red Line’
ISIS is making some of its chemical weapons itself. These are largely thought to be unsophisticated and non-lethal. The U.S. still considers them to be a high priority, and bombed an ISIS chemical weapons plant in Iraq last month.
But according to a British chemical weapons expert, ISIS has access to as much as 100 tons of Assad’s undeclared stockpile. And these are lethal.
There has long been concern that ISIS and other jihadist groups would come across Syrian caches of chemical weapons. In August, a former Syrian jihadi fighter confirmed this fear when he told Foreign Policy Magazine that he helped attack a regime base holding chemical weapons. Led by the Nusra Front, which later split to create ISIS, the jihadists were surprised to find a stockpile of chlorine, sarin, and mustard gas.
ISIS’s possession of Syrian chemical weapons is just the latest unintended consequence of President Barack Obama’s disastrous “red line” in Syria. In 2013, Obama said that if Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. would take military action. But when Assad used chemicals to horrifying effect, Obama did nothing. Instead, the Obama administration allowed Russia to negotiate the handover of “all” Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction. Obviously, Assad wasn’t completely forthright.
Obama’s reluctance to back up diplomacy with force has furthered the continued Syrian civil war—a humanitarian disaster in which nearly half a million people have died so far—as well as the massive refugee crisis that’s overwhelming Europe and Middle Eastern states like Jordan. The migrant crisis, in turn, has threatened the security of Europe and fueled nationalist sentiments and the rise of far-right parties.
And now, ISIS may use chemical weapons that Assad hid from Obama and his jayvee team of diplomats.
A President Trump or Clinton Could Make Similar Mistakes
It would be outlandish to say this is all Obama’s fault. But his decisions did play a large role in this series of events. A nation’s actions on the international stage have direct and indirect consequences, like those in Syria and Europe. But they also reveal the resolve or flexibility of a given administration to other heads of state.
Our reaction to Syria’s use of chemical weapons told Russia how likely we were to react if it annexed Crimea. The Russians sized us up, and rightly predicted that we would do nothing.
Every diplomatic or foreign policy move sends a message and casts a shadow. Obama seems to chronically underestimate the consequences of his words and actions, often looking only at the immediate result.
This is supremely relevant with less than four weeks to go in Obama’s presidential campaign. Many talk about the dangers of a President Trump, having finger poised over the nuclear button. But this is not what should really frighten us. The real risk is that he would make numerous strategic mistakes that would be destabilizing and even catastrophic down the road. This is also the danger of a President Clinton, who cut her foreign policy teeth in the feckless Obama administration.
Furthermore, Obama’s red line was allegedly an off-script comment that surprised his staff. But the day after he made the remark, White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed the administration’s stance, demonstrating the danger of a president who says things off the cuff and then makes them policy to save face. There’s little doubt this would become a regular feature of a Trump administration.
Obama’s Blunders Will Have Severe Consequences
Obama has also trusted and negotiated with bad actors without acknowledging the risks involved. Since day one, Obama’s modus operandi has been “diplomacy at all costs.” This was how he wanted to shape his legacy: by brokering deals no one else could. But Obama has used diplomacy without the threat of force, and negotiated with states that ought not to be trusted. This kind of diplomacy leads to deals in name only.
Take the Iran nuclear deal. It relies on Iranian inspectors to report honestly about the goings-on inside Iranian nuclear facilities. No outside inspectors are permitted entry. In exchange for these “inspections,” the U.S. has loosened sanctions, delivered hundreds of millions to Tehran in shady cash payments, and generally tiptoed around the Islamic Republic, encouraging its reemergence as a regional power. In fact, Obama reportedly backed down from the red line in Syria in order not to jeopardize the Iran deal.
Similarly, the diplomatic process for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons relied wholly on Syria’s own self-reporting and the good graces of Moscow. No one, except perhaps Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, really thought Assad had declared his entire stockpile. And since Obama had already proved his unwillingness to use force, Assad faced no consequences if his secret stockpiles were to be discovered. Yet the Obama administration celebrated this as another diplomatic “win.” Today, we witness its outcome.
President Obama’s legacy in Syria and the Middle East will be civil war, mayhem, enormous suffering, and now chemical weapons in the hands of a terrorist group. His devotion to weak diplomacy mixed with an unwillingness to use force prevented him from seeing the big picture.
Then again, perhaps Obama knows the message he’s sending, and he’s just fine with it. Because ultimately, he wants America to recede from the international stage, consequences be damned.
It’s too bad for the Syrian people—and now that the battle of Mosul has begun, too bad for the Kurds fighting ISIS.