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Jesse Aizenstat Headshot

Should the U.S. Secure Syria's Chemical Weapons?

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My answer is: No, I don't think we should.

The following is my thinking on the situation:

Syria has the largest chemical arsenal in the Middle East. To use them, the Assad regime relies on highly trained teams to mix the chemicals, and deliver them in rockets and missiles. In the event that some of the chemical stockpile is captured (say, by the U.S.-deemed terrorist group, the al-Nusra Front), the chances they will be able to operate such equipment is unlikely. Thus, the "terrorist reason" is of great concern, but not imminent danger.

Now, what if the increasingly desperate Assad regime uses chemical weapons? (Just this week, Assad launched Soviet-era SCUD missiles at targets inside his own country.)

The Assad government has repeatedly said that they will not use gas against the Syrian people. However, it should also be noted that they have repeatedly referred to groups within the rebellion as foreign, and it's not hard to see how semantics could be twisted and re-justified in this 20-month-old conflict with over 40,000 lives lost.

Recently, President Obama has drawn a "red line" with Assad on the issue of chemical weapons. Even Russia -- which has protected the Syrian regime, though has wavered a bit -- has advised Assad not to use them. If Assad were to deploy such weapons, he would risk losing his most powerful international backer, while emboldening NATO and other regional players to reconsider a military option. This would surely be the end for Assad -- and all signs show he's just another rational son-of-a-bitch trying to stay in power.

On the international stage, chemical weapons are seen as a major provocation. Countries tend to use them only if they can control escalation, while desperate countries fear the repercussions. In other words, Assad likely won't use chemical weapons exactly because he's weak. It's all about having the upper hand.

Historically, Nazi Germany demonstrated this by using their highly advanced nerve agents in the Holocaust, but not against the Americans or Soviets as they closed in on Berlin. Neither did the Japanese, who heavily gassed the Chinese in the first phases of the war, but went to great lengths to avoid inadvertently gassing incoming American troops.

Saddam Hussein used gas in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war. With the Soviet Union protecting him, there was little anyone could do about it. Saddam also tapped into his chemical arsenal during the infamous Anfal campaign, where his cousin -- "Chemical Ali" -- gassed mostly Kurdish dissidents in Northern Iraq. Again, against a much weaker enemy.

Given the historical nature of when states tend to use chemical weapons, it would seem unlikely President Assad would use them now. But problems still exist.

What if something changes on the ground?

NPR's top Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, outlined three options for the Obama administration in moving forward:

  1. Pay off Assad's forces to secure chemical sites.
  2. Special Operations (with Jordan or Turkey) go in and secure these sites, though this could require as many as 75,000 troops.
  3. The United States and Israel bomb these sites, at risk of inflaming the region and unleashing the gas if not done correctly.

With aerial surveillance and decent intelligence, the United States will likely know if Hezbollah, for example, starts looting the Syrian stockpile. The Syrian rebels are not likely to know how to operate Assad's weapons, and Assad has everything to loose by using them.

This is a dangerous situation with no good options. But for now, I don't see a need for American intervention. At the moment, the chemical weapons aren't going anywhere.