As violence rages in Syria, a majority of National Journal's National Security Insiders say Washington should intervene to secure the country's massive arsenal of chemical weapons if the U.S. believes Damascus is beginning to lose control of the stockpiles.
In earlier polls of the pool of national security experts, Insiders have not supported U.S. military intervention in the fighting in Syria or even arming the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But 72 percent of Insiders believe unsecured chemical weapons in the country would be a direct national security threat to the U.S. and the region, and would require some kind of outside intervention with Washington's help.
"While the U.S. should stay out of Syria's internecine fight, securing chemical weapons is an entirely different matter," one Insider said.
(RELATED: Who Are the Experts?)
If Assad's hold on power begins to slip, officials and analysts fear the trained Syrian troops currently guarding the weapons sites might be called to more pressing battles or defect, which could leave sites open to looting. They fear al-Qaida -- or Hamas or Hezbollah, which have long-standing ties to Syria -- may find a way to get hold of the weapons.
"The United States would have to take the lead if the chemical weapons were falling into the hands of extremists; it should do this in a coalition, if possible, but unilaterally if necessary," one Insider said. "Only the United States can lead this effort, and timelines would likely be very tight."
(Related: Syria's Chemical Weapons: A Perfect Storm?)
American special forces are trained for missions to secure weapons of mass destruction, one Insider noted. "[They] must be prepared to intervene if needed, but there would be risks of wider conflict or collateral damage. Instead, to the extent possible, U.S. and allied security organizations, collaborating with the Free Syrian Army as appropriate, should bring to bear technical and physical means to enhance protection of the weapons or render them unusable," the Insider said. "Meanwhile, Western, Russian, and Chinese leaders should underline to the Assad regime the high costs that its leaders would pay if they were to employ chemical weapons."
The U.S. should not have to carry out the mission alone, one Insider said, even though keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists is a core element of Washington's global counterterrorism strategy. "Other countries would have a strong interest in preventing such proliferation as well, so a limited, multilateral intervention to secure chemical weapons stocks should be the goal in such a scenario."
Another Insider said that, in any possible intervention, the U.S. should play a supporting role to Israel, which the expert said has been planning for this particular contingency for years. "It's in their back yard," the Insider said. "For them it is an existential question with obvious historical overhang."
While several Insiders noted that intervention does not necessarily mean putting boots on the ground in Syria, which would be a tough political sell, 28 percent balked at the idea of intervening in a country plagued by violence for 16 months. "Do we have a clear idea what 'intervening to secure them' would look like, in terms of force requirements? Do we know everywhere to look?" one Insider questioned. "Are we going to have to fight the people who are trying to take control of them? Who are those people? Probably we ought to discuss those topics before deciding to invade."
"Fear of a certain type of weapon -- which in the case of chemical weapons exceeds the weapons' destructive power -- does not negate the costs of getting dragged into another Middle Eastern civil war," another added.
1. If the U.S. believes Syria is beginning to lose control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, should Washington intervene to secure them?
- Yes 72%
- No 28%
"The U.S. should only intervene in Syria to secure chemical weapons if our intelligence is good enough to calibrate how much control has been lost and to make the objective of 'regaining control' plausible. Furthermore, the U.S. should intervene for this purpose only as part of a coalition featuring regional powers that excludes Israel. Israel would have to be convinced to stand aside as it did when we conducted the First Gulf War and Saddam threatened the use of chemically armed SCUDs. Absent these three conditions -- coalition, intelligence, and restraint -- the U.S. not only should not intervene, it would be pure folly to do so."
"But not unilaterally, and we need to focus both on securing stockpiles and removing them. That's going to be really tough. Such an operation cannot be sequential -- we have to get it all in the first move, or the risk of dispersal skyrockets."
"Only in the context of an international coalition or agreement similar to Libya. The exception would be a clear and present danger and virtual certainty they were about to be used. At that point our national security interest would dictate the most effective course of action to neutralize the threat."
"As part of a coalition of the willing. Important national security interest to prevent WMD from falling into hands of those who would use against U.S. and allies around the world."
"Only as part of a multi-nation U.N. operation, and preferably with the agreement of the government along with a mandate not to intervene in the fighting."
"With NATO, and Russia if it will join."
"Yes, keeping other states and the U.N. informed, and then turn them over to an international body."
"Intervention can take many forms -- perhaps the best step would be to 'neutralize' them."
"Intervention does not necessarily mean putting boots on the ground in Syria, but we should be prepared to secure -- or help others secure -- Syria's chemical weapons."
"Do we have a clear idea what 'intervening to secure them' would look like, in terms of force requirements? Do we know everywhere to look? Are we going to have to fight the people who are trying to take control of them? Who are those people? Probably we ought to discuss those topics before deciding to invade."
"Fear of a certain type of weapon (which in the case of chemical weapons exceeds the weapons' destructive power) does not negate the costs of getting dragged into another Middle Eastern civil war."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.