Official: U.S. Approach to Syria ‘Consistent’ With Counter-WMD Strategy

Workers in protective clothing at a Munster, Germany, company involved in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, as seen in March. A senior U.S. defense official said U.S. policy toward Damascus is "consistent" with a new Pentagon strategy for countering weapons of mass destruction worldwide.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
June 30, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

A seni­or De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cial on Monday said the U.S. ap­proach to the con­flict in Syr­ia has been “con­sist­ent” with a just-up­dated Pentagon strategy for coun­ter­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

The White House last Thursday moved to bol­ster aid to Syr­i­an rebels just days after Dam­as­cus fin­ished re­lin­quish­ing its chem­ic­al arms.

At a Pentagon press con­fer­ence, the seni­or of­fi­cial — speak­ing on con­di­tion of not be­ing named — was asked wheth­er the jux­ta­pos­i­tion in the Syr­ia case might someday make oth­er rogue lead­ers think twice about giv­ing up their nuc­le­ar, chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al arms.

“I feel that our ef­fort — and the en­tire ef­fort — to elim­in­ate Syr­ia’s de­clared chem­ic­al weapons stock­pile is con­sist­ent from this [strategy],” the of­fi­cial said. “We’ve taken the ideas as we’ve been de­vel­op­ing the strategy, and we’ve been ap­ply­ing it to the Syr­ia prob­lem. So it’s ac­tu­ally been an it­er­at­ive ex­per­i­ence.”

The fig­ure did not elab­or­ate spe­cific­ally on any rami­fic­a­tions of the tim­ing of bolstered aid to rebels, but al­luded broadly to some of the com­plex­it­ies in­volved.

“This is a coun­ter­ing-WMD strategy,” the of­fi­cial said. “It’s not a re­gion­al strategy. It won’t solve prob­lems out­side of the WMD lane.

“Our goal there is to try to take the WMD prob­lems, re­duce them, elim­in­ate them where we can, take them off the table wherever pos­sible, so that we can get about the busi­ness of solv­ing oth­er prob­lems,” the seni­or of­fi­cial ad­ded.

Last Monday, an in­ter­na­tion­al co­ali­tion an­nounced it had com­pleted the re­mov­al of ap­prox­im­ately 1,300 met­ric tons of chem­ic­al-war­fare ma­ter­i­als from the Mideast coun­try. Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad’s re­gime agreed last year to hand over the stock­pile, fol­low­ing a nerve-gas at­tack near Dam­as­cus that killed hun­dreds and spurred talk of Wash­ing­ton’s dir­ect in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­i­an civil war.

The new De­fense De­part­ment “Strategy for Coun­ter­ing Weapons of Mass De­struc­tion,” re­leased Monday af­ter­noon, re­places 2006 Pentagon guid­ance for com­bat­ing these most sens­it­ive arms around the globe.

It em­phas­izes tak­ing a wider range of pre­vent­ive ac­tions aimed at re­du­cing and mit­ig­at­ing WMD threats earli­er, rather than grap­pling mil­it­ar­ily with crises after they oc­cur. The seni­or of­fi­cial said the ap­proach is already be­ing im­ple­men­ted, but the doc­u­ment should help to guide plan­ning and in­vest­ments go­ing for­ward.

“What steps can we take earli­er, as we of­ten say, ‘left of the prob­lem, left of crisis, left of boom, left even of ac­quis­i­tion, left of a coun­try ac­tu­ally ac­quir­ing a cap­ab­il­ity’?” the of­fi­cial said in de­scrib­ing the plan­ning ap­proach that the new strategy seeks to in­spire. “What can we bring to bear to shape that en­vir­on­ment?”

In the event that non-state act­ors seize con­trol over weapons of mass de­struc­tion some­where around the globe — as some fear could oc­cur someday in Pakistan, North Korea or else­where — the Pentagon would pur­sue “rap­id and de­cis­ive ac­tion,” ac­cord­ing to the new strategy.

Un­der such a scen­ario, the De­fense De­part­ment “will act in co­ordin­a­tion with part­ners whenev­er pos­sible, but will act uni­lat­er­ally if ne­ces­sary,” the doc­u­ment states.

The seni­or De­fense of­fi­cial on Monday re­jec­ted the idea that the strategy lays the ground­work for “pre-empt­ive” ac­tion to counter weapons of mass de­struc­tion, while not­ing that the U.S. pres­id­ent al­ways re­tains such op­tions.

The up­dated strategy puts “a fo­cus on pre­ven­tion and a fo­cus on tak­ing steps to make sure that risks don’t fully emerge,” the of­fi­cial said. “I would not in any way cor­rel­ate that to any pre­sump­tion on use of force.”

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