US interests and the Syrian chemical weapons challenge

The United States and its allies have at least three distinguishable interests with regard to Syria’s WMD arsenal, particularly the chemical weapons the Assad regime has apparently used on its own people.


Arranged from least to most important, they are:

    The humanitarian interest in deterring the use of these indiscriminate weapons on innocent Syrian civilians.The security interest in reinforcing the long-standing global taboo against the use of these weapons.The security interest in ensuring that Syria’s chemical arsenal stays under tight command and control and does not leak out to terrorists who might use them against U.S. interests, personnel, or the homeland.

The signs are now clearly pointing in the direction of some kind of military escalation involving the US military and, probably, some NATO allies. A senior Obama administration official, anonymously but in writing, burned one of President Obama’s retreat bridges by confirming to the New York Times there was “very little doubt” within the administration that the Assad regime had blatantly violated Obama’s redline. And the conventional wisdom has shifted noticeably, too.  Richard Haass, who criticized President Bush for launching a “war of choice” against Iraq’s WMD programs, now argues that it is “essential” that the United States choose to launch cruise missile strikes against Syria lest US credibility be lost. 

The kinds of military options Obama administration officials floated over the weekend – limited air or cruise-missile strikes against Syrian military targets – at best may help with the first of these goals. They are not likely to do much on the second. And they may worsen the third.

A limited strike against Syrian military targets would punish the Assad regime for its defiance of the red line, which might affect Assad’s calculations on the margins when contemplating using such weapons again. If there are such strikes, it would send a very clear message to Assad: The international community will not get decisively involved if you keep your battle with the rebels at a conventional level, but if you escalate to chemical weapons in a dramatic way, we will bomb you. Such punitive strikes could “do the trick,” in the sense of redirecting Assad back to the conventional level.

It is more debatable whether limited strikes would have much of an effect in bolstering the taboo globally. Other rogue actors would probably see the limited strike as, well, limited and set it against the months of public foot-dragging in response to earlier reports of taboo-breaking. Probably, it reinforces the taboo more than abject non-response does, but not by much.

However, it is hard to see how limited military action would do anything to address the third, and most important, US interest related to Syria’s chemical weapons: ensuring that the arsenals do not end up in the hands of terrorists. And it is quite easy to see how they might exacerbate that problem. If the punitive strikes are heavy enough to tilt the balance of power in favor of the rebels, they hasten the day when the crumbling Assad regime loses control over the arsenal. If the punitive strikes are light enough not to hurt the Assad regime, they intensify the incentive of the rebels to gain control of the arsenal so as to inflict more proportional revenge on the regime. Already, the more radical rebel factions have claimed that Assad’s use of chemical weapons gives them the right to launch reprisal attacks in kind. Given the makeup of the rebel coalition, the United States probably would prefer that the Assad regime retain control over the arsenal, which is why it is likely any limited strikes would try to punish without crippling Assad. 

The leakage problem should not be exaggerated. The portion of the Syrian chemical arsenal that consists of binary weapons – where the weapon is inert because the chemical agents are stored separately and only combined immediately prior to use – offers significant protection against unauthorized use. But no US president could trust those technical measures indefinitely, and so a breach in the custody of the Syrian chemical arsenal, particularly one that resulted in the radical Islamist groups gaining custody of the weapons – whether the al Qaeda -linked rebel groups or the Assad-supporting Hezbollah terrorist group – would rightly be deemed a grave threat to U.S. national security.

Only the options that the Obama administration has appeared to rule off the table – massive aerial bombardment of the depots themselves or boots on the ground to secure the depots – stand much chance of delivering on this third and more important interest.

It would be ironic if the chemical issue catalysed US intervention in Syria, but at a level that would not address what the United States cares most about concerning the chemical arsenal.

© 2013, Foreign Policy