Syria Strike Won’t Eliminate Chemical-Weapons Threat

U.S. military action could spark unintended consequences.

President Barack Obama at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Add to Briefcase
Sara Sorcher
Aug. 29, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.”

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