The Obama administration has dug itself a hole in Syria by treating chemical weapons like nuclear weapons. While both are weapons of mass destruction, they are critically different on three key dimensions.These dimensions should shape U.S. chemical weapons policy in Syria now and with other countries in the future.
First, although nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II, chemical weapons have been employed in virtually every type of conflict, including interstate wars (Iran-Iraq), civil wars (Yemen), terrorist attacks (Japan), and by individuals (U.S.). Thus, rather than violating a rarely crossed "red line," Syrian gas reflects an all-too-familiar, fatal pattern, making absolute prohibitions likely to lead to the problematic dilemma currently facing the Obama administration.
Second, the nuclear club continues to grow (North Korea, possibly Iran soon), but the number of states possessing chemical weapons and the size of their stockpiles has recently begun to shrink -- and shrink radically. Compared to nukes, chemical weapons have less ego attached to them; countries can give them up without a loss of face or dramatic concerns about their security. Responses to chemical weapons use need to keep in mind both who currently has them and who eliminated these weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, unlike the feckless Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there is a strong organization dedicated to the pursuit of universal chemical disarmament: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW -- located in The Hague). OPCW's 189 member-states agree not to use, stockpile, manufacture, or distribute chemical weapons and to open themselves to inspections. The results are astonishing: the OPCW has verified the destruction of 80 percent of the world's known stockpiles of chemical weapons, with programs established to destroy most of the rest. Even states like India, a nuclear power engaged in an ongoing clash with Pakistan, eliminated 100 percent of its stockpile. With little fanfare, the OPCW has overseen the most comprehensive and effective disarmament program in weapons of mass destruction history.
The success of this disarmament effort should drive U.S. foreign policy on chemical weapons. Syria is one of only five states in the world that has not yet signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). We have a vested interest in requiring the hold-outs to join the CWC and pursue comprehensive chemical weapons disarmament (the other non-signatories are Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan -- two states, Israel and Myanmar, signed but have not yet ratified). Universal ratification and implementation of the Convention by the remaining seven states would dramatically lower the likelihood of future chemical weapons use. Convention membership should be a requirement for receipt of any aid from all donor countries.
There are, however, concerns. Chemical weapons experts have told me of their fear that budget-conscious donors will point to shrinking global stockpiles to rationalize cutting OPCW funding. Such cuts might be disastrous; elimination of stockpiles is just the first step. The next tasks include destroying newly-discovered weapons (as recently occurred in Libya), educating national security personnel about methods for detecting and responding to attacks and continued vigilant verification to prevent the reemergence of national chemical weapons programs.
Agents such as the sarin nerve agent likely used in Syria, are incredibly lethal and have the potential to kill thousands of people almost instantly. Yet, chemical weapons prohibition works; this is not idealism run amuck, the results are real -- the OPCW verified destruction of the vast majority of chemical weapons stockpiles. Compared to nuclear arms, states are more willing both to use and to give up their chemical weapons. If we can eradicate chemical weapons, we can save lives and avoid future military reactions and chemical-weapon-based red line-diplomacy. With continued support for OPCW and universal CWC membership we can verifiably eliminate and keep eliminated 100 percent of the globe's stockpile of chemical weapons, ushering in a historic new era of WMD rollback and avoiding future Syrian-like tragedies.
Scott Sigmund Gartner is Professor of International Affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law