Enough with ‘red lines’

Israel’s latest strike inside Syria, reportedly on a facility storing advanced missiles bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, has triggered a new round of talk about “red lines” being crossed.

There’s President Obama’s line, which is linked to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s line, ostensibly linked to the defense of Israeli security.

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But there’s a big problem when politicians draw so-called red lines: They end up painting themselves into a corner. Take Iran, for example. I believe that Netanyahu has been unwise to talk about red lines, and earlier the “point of no return” when considering the Iranian nuclear program. Iran breached those lines ages ago. It now has enough enriched uranium to produce at least one nuclear bomb (if enriched to bomb grade), although the Iranian leadership insists that the fuel is solely for energy purposes. Has Israel taken military action? No. Instead, Netanyahu brought in another set of red lines.

One of two things happens as a result of politicians declaring red lines, which are invariably crossed, that raise expectations of military intervention. Either military action becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as happened with the ultimatum against Saddam Hussein issued by former President George W. Bush and allies at the Azores summit in March 2003, or, if military action is not taken, the leader who draws red lines then looks weak. 

In recent weeks on Syria, Obama has looked like he wants it both ways. He has spoken of a red line by warning Syrian President Bashar Assad against the use of chemical weapons, but at a news conference last week, he was much more cautious.

The Syrian picture is further clouded by the influence of Iran over Damascus in this proxy war. But it is complicated also by the psychodrama that is the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, who tried to rally Obama to his red line position on Iran in a series of public statements last September before being slapped down by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said “we’re not setting deadlines.”

Is Netanyahu doing the same now by authorizing the attack over the weekend inside Syria, the biggest strike ever seen inside Damascus? Israeli officials insist that Israel is not seeking to draw America into a wider war, and they point out that their intention is to ensure Hezbollah militants cannot receive the weaponry from Iran.

This time, after Syrian targets were attacked by the third Israeli strike since January, the Syrian regime has warned that it will hit back. So Netanyahu is clearly running the risk of escalating a conflict that has already drawn in regional players, with the Gulf states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia backing the anti-Assad rebels against the Iranian-backed Assad regime. 

The Obama administration has let it be known that among the options under consideration in Washington would be to arm the rebels directly without putting American boots on the ground. But there are naturally strong objections to that course of action, given the increasing dominance of the rebel faction linked to al Qaeda. Now into the toxic mix, we must add the suggestion from a United Nations investigator that it was the Syrian rebels who used nerve gas, possibly their way of attempting to move Washington into openly taking action.

Obama is right to be cautious. Syria is torn by a complex and intractable conflict with international ramifications that stretch as far as Russia and China, visited yesterday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Netanyahu, respectively. But please, please, stop this nonsense of red lines. 

Penketh is a long-term foreign correspondent who writes on security issues from Paris. She is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.

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