Chapter 6: Iraq and Iran, Crime and Punishment
In Episode 6 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman explores the Middle East where east meets west and Shiite meets Sunni, as it develops a host of toxic challenges. He outlines America’s involvement in Iraq and Syria, examines the red lines of chemical warfare and the growth of the Islamic State.
David Andelman: For half a millennium, the boundary between Persian and Arab worlds has been the most immutable, most sacred, and at times most contested red line in the world. It was first drawn before the time of Mohamed. The line was dropped by Tamerlane and the Mongols who poured in to conquer the region, but it reappeared with the first modern shah. In this episode and the next one, we'll examine this line from both sides—first the Arab, then the Persian
I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
Today, in episode 6, we’re in the Middle East where east meets west and Shiite meets Sunni, as it develops a host of toxic challenges.
Red lines have crisscrossed the Middle East since biblical times. The mythical walls of Jericho were a red line. Joshua and the Israelites marched seven times around the wall, carrying the Ark of the Covenant and blowing their rams horns. The wall came tumbling down. That’s one way to do away with a red line. Two millennia later, the Prophet Mohammed would launch the religion of Islam. With Islam came the concept of jihad, or holy war. Muslim warriors would extend the boundaries of Islam across three continents with a passion yet to be extinguished today.
In 661, the first Islamic caliphate established its capital in Damascus, now the capital of Syria. These early Islamic warriors came to understand deeply the value of red lines, extending their territories, victory by victory. At its peak, the caliphate’s territory was larger than the United States today. Eventually, Islam would meet the gates of Europe. European crusaders marched to the Holy Land to pierce the red lines around Damascus and Jerusalem.
The Crusaders added territory and then lines to defend that territory. By 1300, the Caliphate that the Crusaders had tried to penetrate began to disintegrate. Eventually, small units began to coalesce into the powerful Ottoman state. The Empire grew to include Syria, Lebanon, stretches of the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, Egypt, the coast of North Africa. Everywhere, they established red lines and defended them.
These red lines held for five centuries. But in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles changed the entire structure of the Middle East. The goal was to dismantle the old empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans, and make certain their successors would be in no position to wage war again. In doing so, the drafters of the treaty drew a host of new red lines across Europe and the Middle East.
And there was a huge problem. None of those drafters had any idea what the new boundaries meant to the millions who would be forced to live there. None of the peacemakers had any understanding of the bitter animosities between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. President Woodrow Wilson’s Middle East Advisor was a professor specializing in the Crusades, from six centuries in the past.
Invisible to these peacemakers were the red lines of Sunni vs Shiite, especially in Iraq. There, the majority Shiites were concentrated in the oil-rich regions in the south. They were dominated by the minority Sunnis in the north around Baghdad. This was one piece of a complex and ill-understood web. Syria, Iraq, Kuwait were all created, at least in part, in Paris in 1919.
The mapmakers of Paris had left Iraq landlocked and Kuwait with the vast oil reserves beneath the desert straddling the borders. This truly came into focus in 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein decided he was entitled to neighboring Kuwait and its oil. So he simply came in and took it. He invaded Kuwait in a two-day blitzkrieg. American, French and British forces moved in quickly, launching the First Gulf War.
This fighting was, in many respects, less important for any physical red lines established. National boundaries, poorly drawn in the first place, were simply restored. Instead, some critical boundaries were established around weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical or biological. Such red lines would play a central role in future conflicts and efforts to maintain security across the region.
Saddam Hussein had built his entire regime on establishing or challenging red lines. In September 1980, barely a year after he took power, his Iraqi forces crossed the frontier into Iran. Saddam feared that Iran’s powerful Shiite majority intended to seek dominance over the entire Persian Gulf region. That fear was stoked by Iran's new Shiite leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini called for Iraqis to rise up and oust Saddam, proclaiming “I beg God to cut off the hand of all evil foreigners and all their helpers."
So, in September 1980, Saddam sent a detachment of 10,000 troops to seize 90 square miles of territory, securing a strategic stretch of the border. He had crossed a red line Iran could not easily ignore.
There ensued eight years of bitter, World War I-style trench warfare. A half million troops died. The flames of the conflict were fanned by Shiite clerics in the holy city of Qom. The bloodshed was brought to an end by a UN ceasefire. The truce line marked the geographical boundaries of the two nations. This line, after eight years and hundreds of thousands of lives, had hardly moved at all.
On his own side of the red line, Saddam continued to build military muscle. He wanted to make certain that no force could challenge his iron grip. Still, he was ill-prepared for the consequences. George W. Bush sought a scapegoat for 9/11. Saddam was clearly eager to promote his invincibility. So it was but a short leap to the belief that Saddam had a “weapon of mass destruction” that needed to be taken out. And, so: the Second Iraq War—a conflict far bloodier and more destabilizing in every way than the First.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was ill-conceived, poorly executed and based largely on manipulated intelligence. Saddam never had the nuclear weapon he was believed to have. Nor did his people rise up against his villainous rule as American forces poured in to help. Nor were these invaders in any position to establish or enforce a red line of their own. They only managed to set up a puppet regime ill-prepared for the inevitable insurgency that developed.
For a decade, many Iraqis came to see American forces as an occupying army. At their peak in 2007, nearly 200,000 American troops were operating in Iraq. In December 2008, President Bush flew to Baghdad to sign an agreement to withdraw American forces from Iraq in three years. At a press conference, a journalist hurled both his shoes at Bush shouting. “This is a farewell kiss, you dog." Bush ducked and, still at the podium, responded.
President George W. Bush: So what if a guy threw a shoe at me? No, I consider it a important step on a road toward an Iraq that can sustain itself, govern itself and defend itself. But let me talk about the guy throwing the shoe. It is one way to gain attention. It's like going to a political rally and having people yell at you. It's like driving down the street and have people not gesturing with all five fingers.
DA: Bush later added, “I don’t think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq.” Only it did. And this was just the beginning.
In January 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as president. His goal was a sharp new turn in America’s relationship with the Middle East. But it came with apparently little understanding of the old stable order. He flew to Cairo with a pledge to the Arab world:
President Barack Obama: America is not—and will never be—at war with Islam. Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. That’s why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August.
DA: The problem is that most of what Obama saw as shared aspirations were hardly shared by the autocratic rulers of these Arab nations. They had erected their own internal red lines designed to maintain single-handed control. But from Tunisia to Syria, their hold was about to be challenged. It did not take long for the Arab street—the young activist street—to react.
In December 2010, a young Tunisian pushcart vendor poured paint fluid over himself outside the municipal building in his village. Then, he set himself on fire. The flame of protest quickly spread from this tiny market town to the capital and then across the Middle East.
In January the Tunisian government was overthrown. Eleven days later, throngs surged into Tahrir Square in Cairo, demanding the resignation of Egyptian president Mubarak. Four days after that, the first protests broke out in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi’s rule. By August, opponents overran the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Qaddafi was captured, hiding in a drainage pipe, and killed by rebels.
In March 2011, the most consequential rebellion began - in Syria. It would lead to a multiplication of red lines criss-crossing that country and neighboring Iraq. There began a lethal competition for territory across borders.
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The US had stayed in Iraq even after Saddam was gone. Part of the reason was to neutralize an organization formed by Abu al-Zarqawi, an ally of Osama bin-Laden. While Osama fought the United States from the mountains of Afghanistan, climaxing in 9/11, Zarqawi began building his own organization, challenging American forces in Iraq.
Zarqawi had little interest in establishing red lines. His goal was indiscriminate carnage designed to spread fear with a global audience. If there was any red line here, it was Zarqawi’s desire to lead defenders of the Holy Land against the infidel invaders. Arabs against Crusaders, once again. Eventually, Zarqawi was tracked to a safehouse outside Baghdad where the US Air Force eliminated him with two 500-pound bombs. But Zarqawi left behind an organization that would ultimately form and test some of the most pernicious red lines of the modern era. It would eventually become the Islamic State.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the fearsome leader of the Islamic State. He was able to begin expanding his own red line largely because of the Syrian civil war. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had decided that his resources could be better spent attacking the Free Syrian Army. But Assad ran up against a red line defined by global consensus but that he had never taken very seriously: the use of chemical weapons.
This red line sprang more from an off-hand remark than from any carefully thought-through policy. In August 2012, President Obama paid a surprise visit to the White House Press Briefing Room. He started off talking about Medicare, but towards the end there came a question out of left field. Might he use the U.S. military to assure chemical weapons would not be used in Syria?
BO: We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. 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. That would change my equation.
DA: Obama had tossed off a line that would alter the course of history in the Middle East. None of the principal attributes of a successful red line were remotely in place. Assad had never been warned clearly. Even most of America’s allies were blindsided. And the U.S. military was not in any position to establish and police such a line.
One year later, Assad crossed that red line.
Shortly after two in the morning on August 21, 2013, rockets began falling in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Heavy white smoke spread over the houses as their inhabitants slept. Some 1,400 persons, including more than 600 children, would never wake up. By 6 am, images of convulsed bodies began circulating.
In Paris, London and Washington, senior officials were shocked. They couldn’t believe that Bashar would so flagrantly cross this clearly defined red line. But had it been so clearly defined? Had the consequences been spelled out?
The American, British, and French militaries confirmed their readiness to support civilian authorities if the decision was made to strike. Five U.S. cruise missile destroyers moved into position in the eastern Mediterranean. Three squadrons of French bombers were primed and ready. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin feared for his Syrian ally. He began deploying his naval assets in an arc across the Mediterranean, circling the Syrian coast. Russia was acting to protect its own red lines.
There appeared to be little doubt that the world was heading toward an armed operation. The intention was to demonstrate that a very high price would be paid for crossing Obama’s red line. But none of these leaders fully understood the consequences. Still under the illusion that his two NATO partners remained fully on board, President Hollande formalized France’s response. But in Washington, President Obama was beginning to have second thoughts. And in London’s House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron was facing eight hours of hostile debate. Cameron argued his case:
Prime Minister David Cameron: We possess the capabilities to reduce this threat to our security. And my argument today is that we should not wait any longer before doing so. We should answer the call from our allies. The action we propose is legal, it is necessary, and it is the right thing to do to keep our country safe.
DA: But the House of Commons wasn't buying it and Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat. Britain would stand aside. At the same time, French officials thought nothing had changed in the plans they’d developed with Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered an authoritative defense of this red line and why action now mattered.
Secretary John Kerry: It matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.
DA: But Obama was still studying the matter. Obama did not have a long-term strategy for the Middle East and he felt like events were escaping him. And he did not like feeling trapped.
Obama had in mind a project more central to what he saw as his legacy: an agreement with Iran to prevent the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons. Obama already had effectively established a red line around Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. We'll get to that in our next episode.
Would an American strike on Damascus jeopardize these other, critical talks? This potential risk reinforced Obama’s reluctance to move forward. Moreover, he had no agreement from the UN and, now without Britain, only had France behind him. And he believed American opinion was opposed. So an idea occurred to him. He should seek the authorization of Congress. He summoned his top advisors. All said it had to be a 'go.' The red line had to stand. But as President Lincoln once said, "One nay, 12 yays, the nays have it."
The next day Obama called President Hollande at the Elysée Palace to tell him the news. He had decided to seek congressional support. “Just 15 days,” responded Obama. Hollande was stunned. This was an eternity in politico-military terms. That afternoon Obama spoke to his nation and the world from the Rose Garden.
BO: Make no mistake—this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
DA: In short, what does it say about resolve in any red line? Obama was quite right in at least one respect. This decision did have profound implications beyond chemical warfare. American opinion closed ranks behind the president. The world waited.
Vladimir Putin remained convinced that the United States would strike. Ironically, it was Putin who first surfaced the idea of dismantling Syrian chemical weapons. This proved to be the key that would allow Putin to rescue his protégé Bashar al-Assad. By cementing his standing as a reliable ally of a keystone nation in the Middle East, Putin simultaneously would be assuring the color and shape of his red lines would remain firmly the standard. And, above all, he’d reassert the power of Russia in a part of the world where it had once been a central player. Within days, Russians and Americans agreed on a plan to remove 1,300 tons of nerve gas from more than 45 sites across Syria.
Putin had long believed Obama would avoid the use of force at any cost. And indeed, Obama did flinch at the last moment when it came to the hard choice of launching a blow at the Syrian leader and defending his most visible red line. So, it would now take Putin only a few months to conclude that he could now intervene in Ukraine and annex Crimea with impunity. And French president Hollande had gone all-in to defend a red line he had no role in drawing. His popularity had already stood at barely 33% and now plummeted even further, down to just 4%. He ultimately chose not to seek a second term.
There are object lessons here that are profound. This red line can be linked back to Munich and ahead to similar lines drawn by Donald Trump. For if we have not learned this lesson, there were many more—even more lethal—to come.
While Obama and much of the west were preoccupied with Assad’s chemical weapons, ISIS was in the process of expanding the Islamic State. They made a series of lightning advances across northern Syria, then crossed into Iraq. The goal was to create a caliphate behind a rapidly-expanding red line. The line circled an area triple the size of Massachusetts—home to 11 million people. The boundaries were in a constant state of flux. But their leaders were proud to erase the artificial boundaries dating back to the Treaty of Versailles.
This caliphate was complete with oil fields, ministries, schools and a complex mechanism of justice and retribution. At its peak in 2015, it had a $2 billion in annual revenue stream from oil, extortion, and looting bank vaults. In many ways, this red line strategy was not unlike the Ottomans: amass territories, establish a red line, then expand. But Al-Baghdadi and ISIS had a fatal flaw: Each such boundary is reliant on the support generated by those it envelops. Eventually it was collapsed by a determined land and air assault.
In 2014, Barack Obama ordered American forces back into Iraq. It had been two and a half years since he’d ordered the last such forces out, clearing the way for ISIS’s surge. Under the 2014 Operation Inherent Resolve, American and allied troops began pushing westward, shrinking ISIS’s red line of control. Within a year, the Pentagon announced it had re-taken 6,000 square miles of Iraqi territory.
It took until early 2019 before it would become clear that the Islamic State was effectively gone—at least its physical red lines. But a vast network of virtual red lines remains. Its legitimate businesses continue to throw off large amounts of cash for use in terrorist activities. Its bases have been transferred abroad—largely to unstable territories in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, as the last two years of efforts to eradicate ISIS continued, Bashar al-Assad was growing confident and not a little cocky. He managed to maintain his iron hold on power, though he had not yet reclaimed full control over his entire nation. And Donald Trump had replaced Barack Obama.
Now, Assad felt free to turn his attention to reclaiming some of the far corners of Syria that had not yet been wrapped within his red line. In April 2017, Assad unleashed sarin gas again on one of the last rebel territories. Within hours, President Trump was seeing images of the suffering of small children and babies, writhing from the attack.
President Donald Trump: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.
DA: Trump quickly decided on a surgical strike on the airfield where the planes carrying the sarin weapons had been based. It didn’t work. Within hours, Assad’s air force, operating from that same airbase, mounted bombing raids on seven rebel-held towns. This was an in-your-face gesture that was lost on Trump, who continued to establish a host of red lines of his own.
And then there was Russia. The Soviet Union first recognized Syria’s independence in 1944. Throughout the Cold War, Syria remained an unwavering ally of the Soviet Union. A Soviet-backed coup in 1970 brought to power the Assads. Grateful for the support, they allowed the Soviet military to open a naval base in Tartus, giving it a major military presence in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean.
The intricate set of contemporary red lines within Syria really date to the arrival of Russian air power. American and NATO air power were already operating in the region, but the U.S. gave Russians an implicit green light to build up operations and forces.
Russia’s most-advanced main battle tanks quickly began arriving, along with cruise missile-armed bombers, jet fighters, and helicopter gunships. Russian and American warplanes began playing a dangerous game of tag in the skies. A kaleidoscope of shifting red lines quickly emerged as the fortunes of rebels and the government ebbed and flowed.
Now enter Turkey, which was on the hunt for new friends. Turkey had been unable to win membership in the European Union for three decades and had grown increasingly frustrated. Turkey’s southern border was now being overrun by Syrian refugees. And opposition Kurds continued their often-violent quest for a homeland.
Russia and Iran were promising allies. Iran, we will examine in our next episode.
Russia stepped in with the sale of an advanced missile defense system. Since Turkey was a NATO member, it was Russia's first puncture of NATO’s firm red line. But it quickly became clear that Putin had much grander ambitions. Putin planned to use the close relationship of Turkey's leader Erdogan with Donald Trump to cement the red line Russia was building in Syria.
In 2019, Erdogan called Donald Trump. The Turkish president was, in Trump’s view, “a hell of a leader.” “We are embarking on a full-scale push into Syria with our Russian allies,” Erdogan began. “Why don’t you get your forces out of harm's way?” Trump clearly had no problem with Erdogan suddenly redrawing the red line that had marked the Turkish-Syrian frontier for nearly a century. Within minutes, he tweeted out his orders to a horrified Pentagon. Now, under presidential orders, the last American troops in northern Syria began a precipitous withdrawal. They abandoned large swaths of Syrian territory, not to mention America's friends, the Kurds, to the forces of Turkey and Russia.
The most viable red lines benefit those who established them. But it is essential that their long-term value is clearly in focus. This wasn’t the case for Trump. He had a myopic view of the situation in Syria.
DT: Look, we have no soldiers in Syria. We’ve won. We’ve beat ISIS. And we’ve beat them badly and decisively. We have no soldiers.
DA: Then, following a long night of bombardment of border towns by Turkish jets, the first troops crossed the border into Syria. There began a barbaric regime of ethnic cleansing of Kurdish territories, pushing the new red line 20 miles into Syrian territory. As American forces pulled back, Russian forces moved in, landing at an air base in Aleppo, recently abandoned by American forces.
It was quite clear who was in charge. Putin saw to it that Erdogan got his way. Putin managed to structure the new red line very much to his advantage. Now Russia and Syria had free rein to complete the destruction of Syria’s rebel forces and return full control of Syria to Assad. His gratitude to Putin would have no bounds. And Trump no longer had a single red line he needed to guarantee in Syria. Instead, there was an entirely new red line. This time, it involved an increasingly assertive Iran. Emboldened by American indecision and failures, Iran now saw the Shiite Middle East as potentially within their grasp. We’ll see this play out in our next episode.
Thanks for listening.
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