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

Insiders Split on Whether Intervention Serves U.S. National Security

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. A team of U.N. experts left their Damascus hotel for a third day of on-site investigations into apparent chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of the capital. Activists and doctors in rebel-held areas said the six-car U.N. convoy was scheduled to visit the scene of strikes in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. 
Sara Sorcher
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sara Sorcher
Sept. 16, 2013, 5 p.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.”

What We're Following See More »
House Passes CR, Sends Bill to President’s Desk
4 hours ago
Gary Johnson Stumbles Again
6 hours ago
Senate Approves Bill to Preserve Rape Kits
6 hours ago

"The Senate on Wednesday approved legislation ensuring sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have access to forensic evidence collection kits, sending the bill to President Obama's desk. The legislation, known as the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, was passed by unanimous consent as lawmakers prepare to leave Washington until after the election. The House passed the measure earlier this month."

Alec Baldwin to Play Trump on ‘SNL’
7 hours ago
Court: Selfies in Voting Booth Now OK
9 hours ago