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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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
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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 AQ-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 catalyzed U.S. intervention in Syria,
but at a level that would not address what the United States cares most about
concerning the chemical arsenal.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images