Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and the Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World by Joby Warrick. Doubleday, 2021, 368 pp.
The Arab Spring swept across the Middle East like a wildfire in 2013, and Syria was in the fire’s path. Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashed a brutal campaign against opposition forces and those looking to topple his regime.
As a result, large segments of the Syrian population fled and sought refuge in neighboring countries. Unfortunately, some of those who stayed in Syria would witness the most heinous actions by Assad’s military: the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joby Warrick’s book, Red Line: The Unravelling of Syria and the Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World, details Syrian chemical attacks and the United States and the international response to remove and destroy Assad’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.
In two years of reporting and more than 250 interviews, Warrick obtained detailed accounts from chemical attack survivors, Syrian medical personnel, diplomats, multinational weapon inspectors, American and international policymakers, and the individuals responsible for courageously destroying Assad’s declared chemical stockpile. Warrick masterfully weaves together these perspectives of individuals telling stories of tragedy, and hopelessness as well as courage, resilience, ingenuity, and teamwork. Their combined personal accounts provide Warrick with a comprehensive record of what may be this century’s most insidious war crimes and the global response to them.
The book’s most somber and heartbreaking accounts come from Warrick’s depiction of chemical attacks in Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun. Both Syrian locations, four years apart, were subject to sarin nerve agent attacks from Assad’s military. Warrick delivers extraordinary detail of the carnage from Assad’s deadly chemical attacks. For example, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Assad’s military unleashed a sarin attack that killed at least 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. The world watched in horror as distressing amateur videos of lifeless bodies succumbing to poisonous gas became publicly available.
Warrick walks the reader through a series of cascading events that read more like a fictional thriller than an examination of historical events. For instance, Warrick provides in-depth reporting on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon’s (OPCW) mission to investigate the truth behind the Ghouta attack while being hosted by a Syrian regime that neither wanted them there nor cared for their safety. Warrick captures the tenacity and courage displayed by OPCW weapon inspectors as they seek chemical samples in contested areas controlled by terrorists. Warrick highlights the ever-present possibility of the inspectors being attacked or taken hostage by terrorists. For additional suspense, Warrick highlights that OPCW inspections took place while the United States considered punishing the Syrian government with military strikes. This captivating section of the book is full of unexpected twists and turns that leave readers with a better appreciation of the risk and sacrifice OPCW inspectors take in their pursuit of truth and justice.
The most enthralling part of the book was Warrick’s depiction of the innovative development and use of the field deployment hydrolysis system, a transportable system designed to neutralize Syrian chemical weapons. Warrick captures the Defense Department’s journey to rapidly develop and operationally field a new system to destroy bulk chemical warfare agents on the Cape Ray, a container vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. Also, Warrick captures the nearly impossible task of destroying chemicals at sea with the looming presence of environmental flotillas looking to disrupt operations, toxic chemical spills, and the real possibility of the ship capsizing.
My only criticism of Red Line is that the author packs too much into the book, especially regarding the threat of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program—a separate topic. Contrary to the book’s title about Syria, Warrick dedicates several chapters to the Islamic State’s ambitious chemical warfare program by identifying key personnel, covert laboratories, and addressing the Islamic State’s relentless desire to conduct external operations. Warrick, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, capitalizes on his intimate knowledge and understanding of the terrorist group by including rich insight and detailed information in Red Line. Still, the sections covering the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program could easily stand alone, providing the basis for Warrick’s next book.
Warrick’s account of the Syrian chemical atrocities provides a historical narrative of events that led to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Anyone looking to witness three-dimensional chess played in contemporary geopolitics need look no further than Warrick’s book as he examines the interests of multiple players pursuing different geopolitical goals in Syria’s bloody civil war. The Syrian chemical attacks provide Warrick the foreground to tell a more remarkable story on the complex, unpredictable, and fluid nature of present-day geopolitics.
This book also examines the innovative thinking required to tackle emergent threats and global challenges. Warrick demonstrates US agility—under extreme circumstances—to respond to crises. I highly recommend this well-researched book to anyone interested in national security affairs, as it shows America’s resolve to step up to the challenge and address the most complex and consequential problem of our time—the threat of WMD.