Caution a must when setting down red lines

Caution a must when setting down red lines

Smoke billows following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. May 31, 2024 (File/AFP)
Smoke billows following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. May 31, 2024 (File/AFP)
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As Israeli ground forces entered central Rafah in the last few days, questions about whether the operation crosses President Joe Biden’s red line have intensified. The situation highlights why leaders should always be careful when setting down red lines.

Since at least March, US officials have expressed concern about a major military operation in Rafah and the high impact on the many civilians who had fled there. They suggested that America would not support such an operation without a credible plan to protect civilians. In late April, shortly before Israel launched its ground operations in and around Rafah, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that Washington still had not seen an Israeli plan that US officials felt would sufficiently protect civilians in the area. “We don’t want to see a major ground operation in Rafah,” he added.

Biden took things up a notch on May 9, in an interview with CNN, when he said that he had made it clear to Israeli leaders that, “if they go into Rafah … I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities.” He clarified that his concern was about Israel going into “the population centers.” His comments were widely seen as setting out a red line — a clear threshold that Israel should not cross and, if it did, the White House would stop sending offensive weapons. The Biden administration backed it up, to some degree, by withholding a shipment of particularly large bombs, expressing concern about the level of destruction such munitions could cause in a densely populated area such as Rafah.

As Israeli ground forces have pushed further into Rafah, the Biden administration has tried to backpedal away from its red line

Kerry Boyd Anderson

However, in the last month, as Israeli ground forces have pushed further into Rafah — including areas around eastern and western Rafah and more recently into the city center — the Biden administration has tried to backpedal away from its red line. US officials are arguing that Israel’s operations in Rafah are more precise than earlier operations against cities in Gaza. On May 22, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that operations in Rafah were “more targeted and limited” and had “not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas.”

The administration might have been able to reasonably argue that Israel had not crossed Biden’s red line in Rafah when Israeli soldiers had made only limited advances to the border crossing and areas around the city of Rafah. However, more recently, US officials’ comments look to be splitting hairs.

Last Thursday, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said that “we have not seen a major operation as it relates to Rafah.” He made this statement several days after an Israeli strike sent shrapnel flying through a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah and started a horrific fire, and after further strikes, fighting and civilian deaths in Rafah. Furthermore, Patel said there was no major military operation in Rafah one day before the Israeli army acknowledged that its soldiers were in central Rafah.

Faced with the growing unreasonableness of such statements, the administration has tried to blur the red line. On May 22, Sullivan said there was “no mathematical formula” to define it. He noted that US officials would consider “whether there is a lot of death and destruction from this operation or if it is more precise and proportional.” At this point, one must wonder how much destruction officials would need to see before labeling it as “a lot” or disproportionate. Similarly, Patel, when repeatedly pressed by reporters to explain what would constitute a “major military operation” said, “I’m not going to categorize it into one box or another.”

One must wonder how much destruction officials would need to see before labeling it as ‘a lot’ or disproportionate

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Beyond the immediate problem for US policy — and the consequences for Palestinian civilians — the situation highlights why leaders should take great care in setting red lines, whether or not they officially use the term itself.

One of the most famous modern red line debates comes from President Barack Obama’s 2012 statement promising serious consequences if the Assad regime in Syria used chemical weapons. After regime forces attacked Ghouta with sarin, Obama was faced with the decision of whether to enforce his red line. While he seriously considered military action, he also delayed. In response, Russia proposed a diplomatic solution, Obama agreed, and large amounts of Syria’s chemical weapons were destroyed under international observation.

However, the Assad regime later used chemical weapons again, prompting questions about the effectiveness of the 2013 deal. More than a decade later, there is still a debate about whether the incident is an example of a terrible failure to enforce a red line that undermined US credibility or a successful case of coercive diplomacy. Either way, at least it serves as an example of the need to be prepared before setting down a red line and think through how to enforce it if the adversary crosses the line.

There are other historical examples of leaders drawing red lines, including the frequently changing boundaries that were designed to contain Adolf Hitler’s regime in the run-up to the Second World War and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s literal red line in 2012 regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Some were successful, some failed and the outcome of others remains debated. At a minimum, leaders should be cautious. They should not throw out red line demands without careful forethought, which should include considering the potential consequences of enforcing a red line — and whether leaders are willing to bear those costs — before ever establishing one.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch
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