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Why Chemical Weapons Matter

The realist case for punishing Syria is just as strong as the moral one

A top United Nations official has declared that Syria is now the worst humanitarian crisis the organization has ever faced. It is no surprise, therefore, that moral interventionists are calling for action. But President Barack Obama has consistently downplayed morality in his foreign policy calculus. He tends towards the realism associated with George H.W. Bush.

The coins of the realist realm are caution and prudence, and those are the very words that have dominated thale president’s statements about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The president says he wants to be “prudent” and avoid a “rush to judgment,” promising a careful investigation of the facts and further deliberation of options by the “international community.” Even the recently reported decision to provide lethal military equipment to selected Syrian rebels is characterized as an evolution of existing policy rather than a response to the news of sarin attacks. 

Setting aside the question of chemical weapons, there are many other persuasive justifications for a stronger American role in Syria. The tally of dead in the civil war exceeds 70,000. Many millions of refugees are pouring into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. A crucial region to the United States is coming apart—with no end to the conflict in sight. Along with Iran and Hezbollah, the Assad government is part of a coalition that has been destabilizing America’s allies for years. Yet, the administration doesn’t consider these sufficient reasons for greater involvement. 

So, the question at hand is this, do the current instances of chemical warfare meet the president’s own threshold for action? I believe the realist case for a more robust American role is almost as compelling as the moral one.   

Take the president’s signature issue of arms control. The taboo against using chemical weapons is one of the oldest and most powerful. There is the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its antecedent, a 1925 treaty prohibiting any use of chemical arms, a product of the world’s shock at the extensive use of deadly gases in World War I. Allowing Syria to violate the CWC without penalty would be a major blow to an otherwise successful arms control regime.

For the arms control community, the 1993 CWC ban on production of any chemical weapons was particularly important because of the ease with which such weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors and terrorists.  Unlike nuclear or biological weapons, the storage and deployment of these deadly chemicals does not require an elaborate infrastructure. They come in small packages, and add to the horror of a terrorist act. What really worries the White House is the possibility that in the chaos of Syria’s civil war, intentionally or not, some quantity of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, which has already sent thousands of fighters to battle alongside Assad’s forces.  

In addition, rogue states like North Korea and Iran watch carefully what happens when arms control norms are violated. Thus, by declaring a red line in Syria, the Obama administration has managed to link what Washington does in Syria with the overriding policy challenge of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Syria and Iran are already close allies.  Together, they have been testing America presidents for years, by meddling in Lebanon and abetting attacks on Israel. Israel is clearly worried about the credibility of President Obama’s promise to do whatever is necessary, including the use of military force, to stop the regime in Tehran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. If Washington lets Assad cross its red line without the implied military response, what will Iran conclude about the seriousness of U.S. threats? 

The Iranian nuclear challenge is only one reason why it is so important to ensure that Damascus pays a price for its defiance of Obama’s declaration. In the absence of some U.S. response, Assad may well deploy even more brutal methods to preserve his grasp on power. At every juncture in which the Syrian dictator has seen little or no response from the outside world, he has upped the ante.  Mass arrests were followed by mass killings with small arms, which were followed by artillery bombardments, then helicopter and aircraft attacks, next SCUD missiles and now the use of sarin gas. 

What is to be done? First of all, some caveats. The only way to guarantee that none of Syria’s large arsenal of chemical weapons falls into the hands of a terrorist group is to deploy an army on the ground. Since that is out of the question, the administration needs to be careful not to exaggerate the proliferation danger. For now, some combination of U.S. special forces, Israeli or Jordanian troops and specially-trained rebel units look ready to act on short notice to secure WMD storage sites if that becomes necessary.

Second, it is astonishing to hear so much hand-wringing about the possibility of America entering another Middle Eastern war. That’s not going to happen; even the most hawkish of hawks are not proposing some sort of U.S. invasion. (Nor will the United States “own” the problem if we do act. We owned Iraq because we broke it when President George W. Bush reached thousands of miles across the world to invade that country and overthrow its government.  Syria is already broken.) 

But we are not bereft of options. The administration should immediately plan for a proportional military response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria. This could come in the form of a strike against SCUD missile launchers, the grounding of the Syrian air forces that could be loaded with chemical ordnance, or some other clear signal that the United States will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction. 

Confirming the judgments of the CIA and intelligence agencies from Britain, France and Israel would certainly be useful in developing international support for any U.S. action. Again, Syria is not Iraq. In Iraq, the intelligence was circumstantial, based on estimates of weapons production and Baghdad’s repeated refusal to comply with international inspectors. No actual chemical weapons were ever confirmed. In Syria, the forensic evidence that Sarin gas was present in the soil and the victims is dispositive.

But U.S. officials now want to know whether such use was ordered by Syrian authorities or inadvertent. Intention is much harder to prove. Bashar Assad wouldn’t issue such orders over an open telephone line. It seems the administration has set a standard of evidentiary certainty that will be impossible to meet. Unless there is a massive chemical bombardment, like Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds, President Obama seems content to “kick the can down the road,” as the cliché goes. That should come as no surprise. Many think that was the reason he issued his red line threat in the first place.