As speculation swirls about a pending U.S. strike to "punish" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons to kill civilians, experts say one key point is getting lost: Military action is not guaranteed to deter the embattled leader from continuing to use weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, chemical-weapons analysts tracking the situation closely say such a strike may have the opposite effect, and encourage the custodian of one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world to use them more frequently. The result could be that the U.S. and its allies, in the course of enforcing the "red line" against chemical weapons laid down by President Obama, are drawn deeper into Syria's conflict.
"No one's done a Vulcan mind meld on this guy," says Amy Smithson, senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "So predicting what a despot will do — much less a militarily punished despot — is risky business.
"Look at Saddam Hussein, look at Muammar el-Qaddafi. They both had rather irrational thought patterns and grandiose dreams in the face of clear military threats," she said. "You cannot rule out that Assad might respond by additional use of chemical weapons."
Smithson urges caution, at least until the U.S. and other countries send Syrian civilians gas masks, instructions for decontamination, and antidotes for nerve agents via aid agencies or activists with underground supply routes already in place.
The Obama administration has insisted the options Washington is considering are not meant to overthrow Assad, or even necessarily to turn the tide of the bloody civil war. Rather, they are billing any military action as a response to a violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.
Obama, in an interview Wednesday with PBS Newshour, said that any U.S. military strike would be "a shot across the bow, saying, 'Stop doing this,' that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term" and send the Assad government "a pretty strong signal that in fact, it better not do it again."
But some experts are skeptical.
"I don't think anything we are likely to do is likely to influence him in this regard," said Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Assad is likely to respond to American military intervention "in a way that demonstrates he's not cowed, he's not been influenced by what the U.S. does," Eisenstadt said. "So I think the most likely response by the Syrians is to continue use of chemical weapons, on the level of what they were doing prior to last week, in a way that's kind of ambiguous, takes weeks for any kind of verification."
More than two years have passed and 100,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began, and the U.S. and other Western countries are still hoping Assad will step down or be toppled. But the stakes are higher now that chemical weapons appear actively in play.
Syria, one of the few countries that never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, is believed to have mustard gas, a sarin nerve agent, and VX, among other chemical weapons. The security of those stockpiles is a major factor in any U.S. military strike.
Of the many militias operating in Syria, the most effective fighting groups against Assad are jihadists, said Charles Blair of the Federation of American Scientists. "Since the jihadists are the most powerful, they can most quickly take advantage of a breach the U.S. can create through air strikes or punitive action, and that can inadvertently lead to them taking advantage," Blair said.
The last thing the U.S. wants is to help create more opportunities for extremist groups to take power in Syria — with Assad's leftover chemical-weapons arsenal at their disposal. "You don't want to create a void until you know what's going to fill it," he said.
There is also no easy way to destroy these stockpiles. Bombing them from above could spread toxic materials and kill civilians. Alternately, the U.S. could try to destroy Assad's means to deliver chemical weapons, such as aircraft. But chemical weapons can also be deployed using artillery or rockets, and eliminating all potential avenues would require a huge operation.
The most viable option could be to strike the command facilities that order the use of chemical weapons, and potentially some air bases to drive home the point, said Barry Blechman, cofounder of the Stimson Center.
But there's no move that comes without major risks. If Assad indeed ordered the use of chemical weapons, he has already demonstrated he is not an especially rational actor, Blechman said. "He can say, 'Well, I have even less to lose now,' and start using them more widely." This might provoke the U.S. to take more direct action and end up in the wide-scale, drawn-out conflict it doesn't want.
"There's always the fallacy of the last move," Blechman said. "Decision makers assume that what they do will be the last move. It won't necessarily be."