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      Warrick, Joby. Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World

      Arab Studies Quarterly
      Pluto Journals

            Main article text

            Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Joby Warrick’s Red Line is true-life thriller, which explores the United States’ scramble to neutralize war-torn Syria’s chemical weapons. The book is a fast-paced, non-fiction character-driven narrative with a cast of heroes and villains, ranging from diplomats, spies, commandos, politicians, and weapons’ hunters. Through original reporting and eyewitness accounts from the various protagonists reconstructing moments using interviews, documents, and cell phone videos, Warrick illustrates how the effort to save Syrian lives became embroiled in a catastrophic chain of events that dealt two United States presidents frustrating diplomatic and political decisions, empowered the Western world’s most dangerous foes, and helped respawn the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

            Warrick’s book succinctly tells the compelling stories of 1) everyday Syrians risking their lives to get the unequivocal evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons to the outside world; 2) international inspectors from the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) defying the odds to gather the evidence and proof; and 3) American politicians and bureaucrats creatively destroying the chemical weapons turned over by the Assad regime.

            In August 2012, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was clinging to power in a vicious civil war. Since the 1980s, his regime in Syria built a massive chemical weapons production industry and a stockpile of weapons capable of killing tens of millions. Concerned that Assad might resort to chemical weapons, the international community warned that any such use would cross “a red line,” warranting a military response. A year later, Assad bombed the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with sarin gas, killing hundreds. The international community, especially the United States, was in a predicament: should they become mired in another Middle Eastern war?

            With this backdrop, Warrick begins the story of the race to find and neutralize 1,300 tons of chemical weapons in the middle of Syria’s civil war. Told in disturbing detail, the initial effort to find the weapons proves to be a tactical triumph for the West. However, as the war unfolded, Russia’s ulterior agenda becomes clear—it was using the United Nations (UN) cover to assist the Assad’s regime. Warrick describes a UN team of inspectors who were allowed into the country to collect evidence to determine whether chemical weapons had been used. The catch was that they had to accept Assad’s condition that the report they produced would not be allowed to make claims on who used the weapons. In essence, by running a sophisticated disinformation campaign, this allowed the Assad regime and the Russians to point to the rebel groups as the culprits. At the same time, ISIS itself was further destabilizing the country and was in search of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

            In Part I, Warrick focuses on the eyewitness account of a Syrian weapons scientist who called himself Ayman (or the ‘Chemist’) and was on the CIA payroll for thirteen years. The author tells the story of how, thanks to Ayman, the US intelligence services were able to stay well apprised on the chemical weapons’ whereabouts, capabilities, and usage. In 2001, Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, interrogated Ayman and told him Shawkat “knew what he had done” (7). Ayman mistakenly thought that the reference was to his collusion with CIA when, in fact, it was to the bribes that foreign companies gave him in exchange for contracts from his research institute. Ayman had dug his own grave and in 2002 was executed by a firing squad.

            In Part II, Warrick tells the backstory of an operation to get rid of more than 1,000 metric tons of Assad’s chemical weapons. Although the Syrian regime agreed to surrender its chemical weapons, no other country wanted them; despite brokering a deal with Assad, Russia refused to help with the disposal. As a result, the Pentagon had to fall back on a highly experimental option that could have been proven implausible: neutralize Syria’s arsenal aboard a massive cargo ship in the Mediterranean. Along comes Timothy Blades, the civilian’s chief of the Defense Department chemical weapons, who handles the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. In a period of less than six months, the unit Blade ran put together a prototype of the “Margarita Machine”—a sarin-destroying device that cost $3 million and could be shipped anywhere in the world. Each of its two main components could fit inside a standard 20-foot shipping container. In July 2014, the Cape Ray, a cargo ship carrying a pair of “Margarita Machines,” along with chemical weapons, set sail in the Mediterranean. The ship had an escort of US and European naval frigates; after 40-plus days of working around the clock, the job was done.

            In Part III, Warrick juxtaposes the striking failure of Obama to enforce his self-proclaimed “red line” and the success of his administration in destroying the weapons. While the credibility of the US government statements is concerning, the real issue was the failure of the international community to enforce the taboo of using chemical weapons, which ultimately led to the tragedy in Syria. Until today, Assad remains in power even though he used chemical weapons on his own people on multiple occasions and continues to use them today. The failures to stop him are egregious and sad.

            Red Line paints a grim picture of the war in Syria and the tragedies that unfolded. It is a comprehensive, engaging thriller that is suitable for all readers interested in Syria, its use of chemical weapons, and the response of the international community. Warrick’s journalistic genius and impactful story-telling makes it an enjoyable (yet extremely depressing) read. The case of the Syrian civil war also speaks to how the US “well-intended” efforts to neutralize the weapons gave the Assad regime the cover to use the weapons and blame the rebels, and how Russian commitment to keep Assad in power was stronger than the American desire to oust him.

            Author and article information

            Arab Studies Quarterly
            Pluto Journals
            4 November 2022
            4 November 2022
            : 44
            : 3-4
            : 221-223
            [1-arabstudquar.44.3-4.0221]Managing Director and General Partner AAF Management Ltd
            Author notes
            © 2022 Omar Darwazah

            All content is freely available without charge to users or their institutions. Users are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission of the publisher or the author. Articles published in the journal are distributed under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

            Page count
            Pages: 3

            . Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World. New York: Anchor Books, 2022. 368 pages. Paperback $15.54

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