Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Frightening Truth About Syria’s WMDs

Published in National Review Online on September 3, 2013



The United States faces a serious threat from Syrian WMDs. It’s just not the one we’re talking about. While Syrian-on-Syrian chemical weapons use is inarguably horrifying, the greater danger to the United States and its allies is the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to terrorists. The risk of chemical-weapons proliferation has now significantly increased. And unfortunately, either a yea or a nay vote in Congress on action against Syria is likely to endanger us still further.

The problem is that President Obama drew his red line in the wrong place. It was always unlikely that a desperate Assad could be prevented from using chemical weapons against his own people. A more effective red line would have banned chemical-weapons proliferation and stopped there.

To understand this, we need to trace how we got here.

As the Assad regime was losing its grip on power in early 2012, American officials began to warn Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia that chemical weapons might be crossing their borders, and offered to help with the problem. Meanwhile, Israeli officials registered concern about potential chemical-weapons transfers from Syria to Hezbollah.

Louder alarms went off mid-July of 2012, after intelligence indicated that the Assad regime was removing chemical weapons from storage. It was impossible to tell at the time whether this was being done to secure those weapons against rebel advances, as preparation for use, or to pass some on to Syria’s terrorist allies. In any case, more than a month before President Obama drew his red line, lower-level American officials began to do so publicly. Addressing the Assad regime, for example, Defense Department spokesman George Little said, “We would caution them strongly against any intention to use those weapons. That would cross a serious red line.”

Notice Little’s focus on internal use, rather than proliferation. At the time, however, a senior Syrian defector said that a desperate Assad would not hesitate to use chemical weapons to save himself, while unconfirmed reports indicated that chemical weapons may already have been used against the rebels. It should have been clear at that point that drawing a red line against use, rather than proliferation, could very well result in American entry into Syria’s civil war.

Within a week of the revelation that Syria was taking chemical weapons out of storage, high American officials were in discussions with an increasingly alarmed Israel, now considering its own raid to destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons facilities.

Also in late July of 2012, former American ambassador to Israel and Brookings Institution foreign-policy director, Martin Indyk advocated for a strong red line and (mistakenly) predicted that were Assad to use chemical weapons, Russia would likely drop its opposition to tough U.N. sanctions. At the same moment, Syria expert Andrew Tabler called on the American government to draw a very public red line against chemical-weapons use in Syria, while standing prepared to lead an independent military coalition against Syria should Russia obstruct punishment at the United Nations.

Responding to Tabler, foreign policy commentator Daniel Drezner argued that no Western threat, however credible, would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons to save his own skin. “Let’s be blunt,” added Drezner, the only military response that would matter would be a “full-blown ground invasion.” Military planners estimate that it would take 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria’s massive chemical-weapons storehouse. And even with 200,000 American and coalition troops in Iraq, many sophisticated explosives were looted after Saddam fell. So Drezner was effectively arguing that Tabler and the strong-red-line camp were bound to pull us into either an invasion or a humiliating climb-down.

Nonetheless, on August 1, 2012, less than two weeks after Indyk and Tabler called for a strong public red-line against chemical-weapons use in Syria, both men were featured witnesses at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing chaired by then-senator John Kerry.

There was some confusion at this hearing about the actual nature and status of the American red line on chemical weapons. Without revealing classified details, Kerry emphasized that red lines of some sort had already been privately conveyed to key parties in Syria. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said he was unaware that red lines had ever been laid out. Meanwhile, under questioning, Tabler confirmed that, while his testimony had highlighted the issue of chemical-weapons use, he was an advocate of greater American involvement in Syria independent of the chemical-weapons issue.

At the hearing, Kerry seemed to favor a strong chemical red line, as well as more aggressive American attempts to influence events in Syria. In fact, Kerry hinted that the human toll of the Syrian civil war justified American involvement, irrespective of chemical-weapons use.

The upshot of all this is that those advocating for drawing a strong and public chemical-weapons red line in Syria were often eager for greater American involvement in any case, and probably aware of the fact that a line drawn against use, rather than proliferation, was liable to be crossed. For some, establishing a strong line against internal chemical-weapons use, rather than proliferation, seems to have served as a way of prodding a reluctant American public to enter the conflict. Senator Kerry appears to have been a member of this camp and, given his influence with the Obama administration, he may well have played a role in the president’s drawing of the red line on August 20, 2012, about three weeks after the hearing with Indyk and Tabler.

When Obama finally drew his red line on chemical weapons, it was directed against both use within Syria and proliferation. Given Obama’s personal commitment to the sort of humanitarian intervention advocated by U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, this was to be expected. Yet Obama ought to have understood that many deemed use of chemical weapons by a desperate Assad both likely and impossible to deter, and that key advocates of American intervention in Syria saw a red line on use as a way of drawing a reluctant United States into the conflict.

Given his lack of preparation, Obama seems to have believed he was simply throwing a bone to his humanitarian hawks. Yet they surely realized that, given Assad’s straits and past conduct, a red line against internal chemical-weapons use could very well be crossed. British foreign-affairs columnist Con Coughlin offeredanother reason why Obama’s Syria red line was unlikely to hold: “It is highly questionable whether, given the conflict-averse nature of his presidency, his warning will actually have the desired effect.”

Could a red line have been drawn only against proliferation? That would certainly have satisfied the Israelis, who may otherwise have entered the conflict, potentially sparking a regional conflagration. It’s also worth noting that presidential candidate Mitt Romney responded to the heightened chemical threat by stressing hiswillingness to take whatever action might be necessary to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. Romney made no comparable warning regarding the internal use of Syrian chemical weapons. A red line against proliferation, rather than internal use, would have been more likely to hold, and more worth defending if crossed.

Unfortunately, the deeper problem is that, when it comes to Syria’s WMDs, the United States has no good recourse in any case. Truly securing and neutralizing Syria’s massive chemical weapons stockpile would take a full-scale ground invasion, and even then could fail.

The tremendous challenge of dealing with Syria’s WMD stockpile was clarified at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing held on July 19, 2012, just a day after intelligence first reported that the Assad regime was removing chemical weapons from storage. The hearing was convened by Ed Royce (R., Calif.).

Royce stressed the critical importance of contacting the elite elements of the Syrian army who controlled the chemical weapons to let them know that they would be rewarded for keeping them under wraps, even in case Assad fell. Quite possibly, the United States has already conveyed that message to the weapons’ guardians. There are problems, however.

Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Dr. Steven Bucci, outlined the dilemma at the hearing. There are no good military options, said Bucci. A massive ground invasion to secure the chemical weapons not only faces huge political and geostrategic hurdles, but would probably force us to fight against both sides in the civil war, making the objective itself very difficult to achieve.

Using air-strikes to destroy all of Syria’s chemical sites would not only create “astronomical” collateral damage, said Bucci, but would “unlock the gates” of the weapons facilities, allowing them to be looted. Inserting special forces would be extremely dangerous to our people, and the objects that need to be seized are measured in tons not pounds.

The best option involving force would entail a limited number of American advisers guiding soldiers from allied Muslim countries toward the storage depots, then instructing them on how to secure and neutralize the weapons.

Short of that, the best option, as Royce suggested, is sending messages directly to the elite troops guarding the weapons facilities, promising them rewards for refusing to sell or pass on the weapons, regardless of the outcome of the conflict, and threatening punishments for failure to keep the material secure.

What becomes of that strategy now? If Congress declines to authorize a strike, the messages we have presumably sent to the guardians of the weapons become less persuasive, at least unless we can convince them that proliferation is our real red line. But what if Congress authorizes action and the president strikes? If it’s a pinprick Assad easily survives, the guardians will also lose trust in our warnings, and faith in our ability to protect them in the event of regime change.

If, on the other hand, the strikes significantly degrade Assad’s capabilities, his regime might be even more likely to use or proliferate chemical weapons than before. Not only will it have survived a strike, but it will need to prove that, even without its air force, it remains powerful. In that case, Assad may use chemical weapons again, not only to taunt the United States and keep us in position of needing to strike again or seem weak, but also to terrorize an emboldened opposition.

Assad may also feel that having survived the worst we can do, the barriers against proliferation are down. Of course, he’d still need to fear an Israeli strike in case of proliferation. Yet greater use of chemical weapons against his own people as a response to either a pinprick strike or a substantial strike seems likely, and proliferation at least possible.

The more aggressive plan for regime change backed by Senators McCain and Graham seems to offer a solution. McCain and Graham would like to see a sustained American air campaign backing rebels we would arm. In exchange, they ask that the Free Syrian Army publicly commit now to hand over all of Assad’s chemical weapons once they take power.

The problem is that the huge sections of the opposition led by al Qaeda may grab chemical weapons before FSA can take control. Back in early August of 2012, as the West contemplated the rising problem of Syrian WMDs, Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham published an op-ed on “The risks of inaction in Syria.” There they repeatedly cited “the bright new chapter” in our relations with democratic elements in Libya as a model of what we could expect after a Syrian intervention. About a month later, Libya definitively descended into anarchy, as our ambassador was killed.

On top of that, a Free Syrian Army agreeing to dismantle Syria’s chemical deterrent against Israel’s nuclear weapons and hand it over to the United States would not be popular with the Syrian public. This could make it tougher for FSA to win hearts and minds, which would advantage al-Qaeda and the jihadists in the internal struggle for power after Assad.

So there is no good solution to the dilemma posed by Syrian WMDs. Drawing the line at internal use of chemical weapons was an understandable gesture from a humanitarian point of view. Making the taboo on chemical-weapons use as strong as possible is certainly desirable. But is it achievable? Informed observers understood in July of 2012 that a desperate Assad would likely be forced to use his chemical weapons to save himself, even in the face of a credible retaliatory threat. That meant drawing a red line against the internal use of chemical weapons had a high likelihood of forcing us either into an invasion or some lesser (and likely unsuccessful) intervention. Obama appears not to have understood this, although those pressing him to establish a red line on use, rather than proliferation, likely did.

In the long list of bad options for dealing with Syria’s massive and extremely dangerous chemical-weapons stockpile, the best was to hold out rewards and punishments to the elite troops guarding the weapons. Yet now that a too-eagerly drawn a red line against internal use, rather than proliferation, has been laid down and crossed, this last best option may be gone, or at least greatly weakened. Whether we strike or not, our leverage with the guardians may be over. Failing to strike won’t scare them. Striking short of regime change will anger them, even as it fails to impress. And regime change itself could easily release the weapons to every bad actor in the region.

In short, we have a problem with Syrian WMDs, but it’s not the one we’re discussing. The greatest problem is proliferation, not internal use. And there’s no easy way now to stop it.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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