Syria Can’t Be Trusted to Give Up Chemical Weapons, Security Insiders Say

Sara Sorcher, National Journal
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Sara Sorcher, National Journal
Sept. 17, 2013, 7:02 a.m.

Three-quar­ters of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders say Syr­ia can­not be trus­ted to give up its chem­ic­al weapons, des­pite the plan to trans­fer Syr­ia’s massive chem­ic­al stock­pile to in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol, where it can be des­troyed.

“The Rus­si­ans are buy­ing more time for Syr­ia to move and hide its chem­ic­al-weapons ar­sen­al and prop­ping up [Syr­ia’s strong­man] Bashar al-As­sad,” one In­sider said. The ex­perts were polled dur­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­ations to im­ple­ment the plan. “How can we trust a re­gime which kills its own pop­u­la­tion with hein­ous weapons? Rus­sia and Syr­ia are in con­trol of the timeline and are cap­it­al­iz­ing on U.S. weak­ness. One of my ment­ors said this for­eign policy farce is re­min­is­cent of the Ir­a­ni­an host­age crisis that also took ad­vant­age of a weak POTUS, Jimmy Carter.” An­oth­er In­sider said Syr­ia would try to delay a deal to hide as much of the chem­ic­al ar­sen­al as pos­sible “much as Sad­dam Hus­sein did.” Even so, the In­sider ad­ded, the dip­lo­mat­ic op­tion is “still worth the ef­fort.”

Oth­er In­siders said the ef­fort would fail for tac­tic­al reas­ons. “The is­sue really is less one of trust than the prac­tic­al­ity of ex­er­cising in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol in the middle of a civil war,” one In­sider said. “It’s not go­ing to hap­pen, even if As­sad really wanted it to hap­pen. Who is go­ing to do it? Amer­ic­an boots on the ground? European or Ar­ab? No way. Rus­si­an boots? Ir­a­ni­an? Maybe.… The whole idea is a non­sense, but Obama is in such a des­per­ate situ­ation, he has no choice but to buy it.”

One-quarter of In­siders said Syr­ia would fol­low through. Syr­ia may be will­ing to give up its ar­sen­al with pres­sure from Rus­sia, an In­sider said, al­though “veri­fic­a­tion of the elim­in­a­tion of its en­tire stock­pile will be fraught with chal­lenges, giv­en the dif­fi­culty of move­ment for aid work­ers, journ­al­ists, or veri­fic­a­tion teams sub­ject to kid­nap­ping, be­head­ing, and oth­er threats throughout rebel con­trolled areas of the state.” While the ef­fort is worth ex­plor­ing, the In­sider said, U.S. lead­ers should be skep­tic­al about the prob­ab­il­ity of suc­cess.

Sep­ar­ately, In­siders were split over wheth­er there are good na­tion­al se­cur­ity reas­ons for the U.S. to strike Syr­ia, out­side of the mor­al ar­gu­ment to in­ter­vene. A slim ma­jor­ity of 52 per­cent said there were no com­pel­ling se­cur­ity reas­ons for Wash­ing­ton to get in­volved. “This is a war we should stay out of,” one In­sider said. “Help con­tain it, yes; help fight it, no.”

In­siders warned of dan­ger­ous down­sides to in­ter­ven­tion. “From a pure na­tion­al se­cur­ity per­spect­ive, strikes to topple a re­l­at­ively stable re­gime with no ac­cept­able op­pos­i­tion group strong enough to take over is a re­cipe for chaos on the or­der of Libya, Le­ban­on,  or pos­sibly even Somalia. We don’t want that.”

Forty-eight per­cent of In­siders said na­tion­al se­cur­ity was at stake and called for in­ter­ven­tion. “There are only na­tion­al se­cur­ity reas­ons. Chem­ic­al-weapons use is in­tol­er­able be­cause we do not want them to be on the re­ceiv­ing end someday,” one In­sider said. “We signed a treaty with oth­er coun­tries that feel the same way. In such cir­cum­stances, to do noth­ing would in­vite the un­rav­el­ing of that re­gime and weak­en all sim­il­ar ones.” An­oth­er ad­ded: “Middle East sta­bil­ity is a vi­tal U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest.”

U.S. cred­ib­il­ity is at stake since Obama said chem­ic­al weapons use was Wash­ing­ton’s “red line,” one In­sider said. “Al­lies and ad­versar­ies alike are watch­ing to see if the U.S. will be a pa­per ti­ger.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders Poll is a peri­od­ic sur­vey of more than 100 de­fense and for­eign policy ex­perts. They in­clude: Gor­don Adams, Charles Al­len, Thad Al­len, James Bam­ford, Dav­id Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Ber­gen, Samuel “Sandy” Ber­ger, Dav­id Ber­teau, Steph­en Biddle, Nancy Bird­sall, Mari­on Blakey, Kit Bond, Stu­art Bowen, Paula Broad­well, Mike Breen, Mark Brun­ner, 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, Lorne Cran­er, Ro­ger Cres­sey, Gregory Dahl­berg, Robert Dan­in, Richard Dan­zig, Daniel Drezn­er, Mack­en­zie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, An­drew Ex­um, Wil­li­am Fal­lon, Eric Farns­worth, Jacques Gansler, Steph­en Gan­yard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gun­zinger, John Hamre, Jim Harp­er, Mi­chael Hay­den, Mi­chael Her­son, Pete Hoek­stra, Bruce Hoff­man, Linda Hud­son, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Don­ald Ker­rick, Rachel Klein­feld, Lawrence Korb, Dav­id Kramer, An­drew Kre­pinev­ich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lind­say, Justin Lo­gan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ron­ald Marks, Bri­an Mc­Caf­frey, Steven Metz, Frank­lin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kev­in Neal­er, Mi­chael Oates, Thomas Pick­er­ing, Paul Pil­lar, Larry Pri­or, Steph­en Rade­maker, Marc Rai­mondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Ro­ten­berg, Frank Rug­giero, 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, Richard Wil­helm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Za­kheim, and Juan Za­r­ate.

1. Can Syr­ia be trus­ted to give up its chem­ic­al-weapons ar­sen­al to in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol to avoid U.S. mil­it­ary ac­tion?

(60 votes)

No 75%
Yes 25%


“UN or NATO in­spect­ors must con­trol all stock­piles, for any agree­ment to have a chance to suc­ceed. Once on ground, in­spect­ors will need se­cur­ity to keep weapons safe un­til dis­pos­i­tion is de­term­ined.”

“But we should pur­sue in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol any­way.”

“It isn’t a mat­ter of trust. It is a mat­ter of know­ing—that is, in­tel­li­gence. Syr­ia has had enough time and owns enough hidey-holes to make find­ing and ac­count­ing for the stuff really tough.”

“Not without veri­fic­a­tion.”

“Syr­ia can in fact be trus­ted to try to get around any agree­ment that is put in place. That tend­ency needs to be countered every step of the way.”

“Putin and As­sad have to en­joy­ing them­selves watch­ing Obama and Kerry turn­ing in­to pret­zels.”

“Chem­ic­al weapons are ubi­quit­ous, and chem­ic­als for com­mer­cial use can be eas­ily used. So even though they may give up some of what they have now, if Syr­ia wants to use chem­ic­al weapons, they can fig­ure out a way to do so even after giv­ing them up.”

“Doesn’t mat­ter. This gets Obama out of a hole he dug for him­self.”

“No, we can­not trust the Syr­i­ans and cer­tainly not the Rus­si­ans who come in try­ing to up­stage United States and leave Syr­ia with chem­ic­al weapons.”

“That would be giv­ing up weapons that, to date, they have not con­firmed that they even pos­sess, right?”

“But Syr­i­an de­cep­tion will be on Rus­sia’s dime. There’s not a bet­ter deal out there.”

“I don’t think it really will, but will do enough to pre­vent a strike and stop us­ing them. For a while.”

“The Ir­aqis could not be trus­ted with their chem­ic­al weapons, and the Syr­i­ans have quite a few more reas­ons to hinder any in­ter­na­tion­al in­spec­tion mech­an­isms than the Ir­aqis did. They are very ad­ept at mask­ing the move­ments of their chem­ic­al-weapons troops.”

“They will do everything in their power to cir­cum­vent any chem­ic­al- weapons con­trol ef­forts. I’m also cer­tain the Rus­si­ans and the Ir­a­ni­ans will help the Syr­i­ans hide some of their chem­ic­al weapons.”

“If this pro­pos­al gets im­ple­men­ted, it will take many years and pro­duce no cer­tainty of dis­arm­a­ment.”

“Syr­ia and Rus­sia will drag out any ne­go­ti­ations as long as pos­sible un­til the U.S. will to strike col­lapses. In the end, Bashar al-As­sad will not give up his chem­ic­al weapons quickly, cheaply, or eas­ily.”

“Why should they give up their hole card? Without them, they are like Le­ban­on without the beaches.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it. Plus the U.S. is de­mand­ing a pace and level of com­pre­hens­ive con­firm­a­tion that al­most cer­tainly can’t be sat­is­fied.”


“Trust but veri­fy.”

“They know that if they are caught out, they will get the Sad­dam treat­ment.”

“But only if but­tressed by threat of force and strong in­ter­na­tion­al su­per­vi­sion with U.N. Chapter 7 au­thor­ity.”

“I would sug­gest that Syr­ia real­izes now that it over­played its hand and would be loathe to em­ploy chem­ic­al weapons again.”

“The Syr­i­ans, the Rus­si­ans, and Ir­a­ni­ans can be trus­ted enough to provide the min­im­um for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ex­tract it­self from the de­bacle. Just enough to call off mil­it­ary ac­tion.”

“There’s no cut-and-dried an­swer here. The ques­tion is, if Syr­ia gives up most of its chem­ic­al weapons, would that count as a policy vic­tory?”

2. Out­side the mor­al ar­gu­ment to in­ter­vene in Syr­ia, are there good na­tion­al se­cur­ity reas­ons for U.S. to strike Syr­ia?

(60 votes)

No 52%
Yes 48%


“In­ter­na­tion­al norms are a weak reed; the re­gion­al down­side of an at­tack is com­pel­ling reas­on not to do it.”

“We would be in­ter­ven­ing in a civil war.”

“But if we are a glob­al he­ge­mon who be­lieves in val­ues, the mor­al ar­gu­ment should be enough. And mor­als mat­ter.”

“Simply not a U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cern.”

“Pulling yet an­oth­er long-term oc­cu­pa­tion such as Ir­aq or Afgh­anistan. We will in­stead leave it to chaos. A ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment is best out­come.”

“Not really, but if we want to really ef­fect change we should tar­get both the As­sad re­gime and se­lect rebel forces al­ligned with ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions to force both the le­git­im­ate (read: U.S. pal­at­able) do­mest­ic Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion and As­sad to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table to come up with a Syr­i­an solu­tion on their own.”

“Not in the man­ner pro­posed. U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests are to con­tain the im­pact of the Syr­i­an con­flict on the neigh­bor­hood and to pre­vent either Ir­a­ni­an-sponsored or Sunni ter­ror­ists from es­tab­lish­ing a stronger foothold there.”

“No, primar­ily be­cause we are so un­cer­tain about the ac­tu­al makeup of the rebel groups and what the down­stream im­plic­a­tions would be.”

“If Ir­an is the real prob­lem, then ad­dress Ir­an dir­ectly. They are more than happy to have us wrestle in the mud with their sur­rog­ate.”

“This is a feck­less ex­er­cise, ill-handled by an ad­min­is­tra­tion clearly over its head. We can­not par­ti­cip­ate in every civil war around the war; es­pe­cially one of no stra­tegic in­terest to the U.S.”

“Se­cur­ity ‘con­cerns’ [in­volved in Syr­ia]. In or­der for chem­ic­al weapons in Syr­ia to im­plic­ate U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity, you’d need a com­bin­a­tion of M.C. Es­cher, Sal­vador Dali, and Rube Gold­berg. It’s not about na­tion­al se­cur­ity. (The mor­al ar­gu­ment is bad, too, but you didn’t ask about that.)”

“Pre­serving the chem­ic­al-weapons ta­boo is valu­able, but it’s neither a vi­tal na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest nor is it ob­vi­ous that a mil­it­ary re­sponse is the best op­tion.”


“U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity is at stake, but Obama’s plan to strike them in an in­cred­ibly small way would do noth­ing to ad­vance those in­terests. Rather, his is a strategy aimed only at sav­ing him­self per­son­al em­bar­rass­ment. No won­der he can’t sell it to Con­gress or the Amer­ic­an people.”

“U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity is at risk when a re­gime with chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al weapons can­not con­trol them or may provide them to groups who will em­ploy them against U.S. in­terests.”

“The whole world is watch­ing.”

“There are good reas­ons if we see ourselves in a long-term con­flict with Ir­an. If we de­cide we aren’t ser­i­ous about stop­ping Ir­an from be­com­ing a he­ge­mon, then there is no good reas­on to strike Syr­ia.”

“Yes, a strike would show Amer­ic­an re­solve and send a sig­nal to Ir­an and North Korea about our lack of tol­er­a­tion for the use of chem­ic­al weapons against ci­vil­ians. But without clear ar­tic­u­la­tion about how such ac­tion out­weighs the po­ten­tial second- and third-or­der ef­fects from col­lat­er­al dam­age, from the in­creas­ingly leth­al and in­flu­en­tial Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and the Le­vant (who are at­tract­ing and or­gan­iz­ing thou­sands of for­eign fight­ers to the re­gion), and even neg­at­ive im­pact on al­lies around the globe who do not en­dorse uni­lat­er­al ac­tion, it may not be the most prudent in­stru­ment of power for the pres­id­ent to use. The pres­id­ent must con­sider the ar­dent op­pos­i­tion from the Amer­ic­an pub­lic, Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers, de­fense of­fi­cials, in­ter­na­tion­al al­lies, and even the pope. Pres­id­ent Putin’s dip­lo­mat­ic pro­pos­al to have in­ter­na­tion­al mon­it­ors take con­trol of and des­troy the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment’s chem­ic­al-weapons ar­sen­al has giv­en the pres­id­ent a new life­line and an­swer­ing the R2P call might be best served if this ap­proach is vi­able and veri­fi­able. But im­ple­ment­ing such a po­ten­tially prom­ising pro­gram would be a ar­du­ous task.”

“It is a proxy war be­ing waged by Ir­an.”

“Un­for­tu­nately, through sheer in­com­pet­ence, we’ve made ourselves look like a poor, pi­ti­ful gi­ant and have to rees­tab­lish the de­terrent value of our power.”

“In ad­di­tion to re­du­cing the power of ji­hadists and the destabil­iz­a­tion of the Middle East, we have a grave in­terest in en­sur­ing that Ir­an be­lieves that we up­hold our own red lines. If Ir­an thinks we are not ser­i­ous about red lines, they are likely to move to­wards a nuc­le­ar weapon—we are likely to main­tain that red line—and then we will be in a war we don’t want. Bet­ter to de­ter by show­ing we are ser­i­ous.”

“Ab­so­lutely! Syr­ia is far more stra­tegic­ally im­port­ant to the U.S. than Libya. It is Ir­an’s front-line state on the Medi­ter­ranean and is a con­duit for Ir­a­ni­an weapons and ad­visers to Hezbol­lah, thus af­fect­ing the sta­bil­ity of Is­rael, Le­ban­on, Jordan, as well as Tur­key. Syr­ia is also Rus­sia’s premi­er cli­ent state in the Middle East. Any­thing we can do to sty­mie Ir­a­ni­an and Rus­si­an in­flu­ence in the re­gion is in our in­terest. The ques­tion we have to ask is what type of re­gime would come after As­sad and wheth­er that dev­il may be worse than the one we already know.”

“We still have se­cur­ity in­terests in the Middle East. There is no ‘free pass’ for those who feel we can just dis­en­gage.”

“The US has de­clared vi­tal In­terests in two ways: this is a clas­sic VP Cheney “1%” prob­lem where you couple a grow­ing Al-Qaeda safe haven and whatever re­mains of Syr­ia’s nuc­le­ar de­vel­op­ment pro­ject (re­mem­ber the Is­raeli strike on al-Kibar) in a coun­try that is un­rav­el­ing and in chaos which is a good case study for the 1% de­bate re. pre­vent­ive op­er­a­tions; second, we have de­clared Vi­tal In­terests in the de­fense of Is­rael, KSA and art­icle 5 NATO ob­lig­a­tions to Tur­key.”

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