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
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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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