As discussions of airstrikes have given way to negotiations over Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, the Syrian dictator has predictably begun conditioning his cooperation on a growing list of demands. After deploying chemical weapons on his own people and receiving a front row seat to the full extent of international ambivalence, Assad now sees an opportunity to try and tip the scales against the Syrian opposition permanently. Maintaining the international norm against using chemical weapons is an important goal of American policy, but it needs to be understood that the worst possible outcome for everyone involved would be to functionally reward these atrocities.
Effectively securing these weapons in the midst of a civil war will be functionally impossible and setting the precedent that gassing your citizens can be a strategy for extracting powerful concessions would weaken norms against chemical weapons use, not strengthen them. The stated policy of the United States is to aid the opposition, support the transition to a post-Assad government, and secure the country’s vast stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The only way to reconcile these objectives is to actively seek an end to the conflict and usher in a more responsible, transitional government. As the White House has said, Assad must go.
If Assad is left in power and becomes a partner in an ongoing international project to decommission his stockpiles, the situation is likely to spin out of control quickly. Even if he supplies the international community with a reasonably full accounting of his weapons -- a big if -- securing those stockpiles in this context would be incredibly difficult and potentially impossible. Current reporting suggests that the regime possesses around 1,000 metric tons of chemical and biological agents spread across some 50 different sites, many of which are mobile. Even under the best circumstances this would be a multi-year, expensive, and technically intensive endeavor.
But this is far from the best of circumstances. There is really no precedent for a successful operation of this type in the middle an ongoing hot war. Even attempting this CW elimination will involve hundreds if not thousands of technical and support staff, the vast majority of whom will be Americans. These units will need to operate all over the country, including many areas of active combat which will necessitate armed security able to defend the teams from attack, either intentional or collateral. It is all too easy to imagine a situation in which specialized U.S. / UN forces securing a CW depot outside Damascus get caught in a firefight between rebels and regime units. The Assad military, who presumably would be working closely with the international forces providing them with intelligence and facility access, may well coordinate their tactical operations to support or protect the international teams from the “terrorists.” If there are American casualties the engagement would only escalate further. At this point you have US military assets functionally fighting alongside the Assad regime against rebel groups which the United States is simultaneously arming and supporting. It is easy to see how this gets far worse very quickly.
The stated policy of the White House is that Assad has forgone his legitimacy to govern and can have no role in the future of Syria. The U.S. government has recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, have sided with the rebels -- providing them with arms, training, and support -- yet the President believes that the conflict has no military solution and that all parties must reach a negotiated settlement. While that is true, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Assad would voluntarily step down absent an existential threat to his rule. Assad’s forces are winning the war on the ground and are in a far better position than the opposition -- themselves poorly resourced and fractured -- to grind out a multi-year battle. If American policymakers desire some other result, one that doesn’t lead to spiraling regional instability, millions of refugees, piles more dead, and an unfettered training ground for a whole new generation of Jihadis -- then any strategy aimed at achieving those goals needs to include a real plan to force the dictator’s departure.
International norms, diplomacy, and multilateral institutions are all important and should be promoted and strengthened whenever possible. These are mechanisms, though, not ends in and of themselves. The United States and its allies have real and lasting interests in the Middle East and actions we pursue in Syria should not be discreet efforts, but expressions of a larger strategy to advance the full range of US priorities. Getting Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention is a perfectly fine achievement, but is it worth legitimizing a murderous and dictatorial regime on the international stage and holding them up as a beacon of responsible action? Given the unlikelihood of a war-time CW removal mission to succeed, the resolution of the military conflict would actually seem to be a prerequisite for securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Those who are rightfully espousing the virtues of strengthening the CWC regime must also account for the possibility that this deal creates clear incentives for future autocrats to develop, if not use, chemical weapons with the now reasonable hope that they will be able to secure substantial concessions in exchange for giving them up. It is important to also understand the potential this situation has to elevate Putin who -- while not our “number one geopolitical foe” -- is certainly a counterproductive actor, supporter of America’s enemies, and global competitor across a range of U.S. interests. These calculations need to drive American policy decisions in the coming weeks and the path forward should to be clearly communicated to the American people, their representatives in Congress, and governments around the world.
This is not to say that unilateral airstrikes are necessarily an appropriate response, that international norms against chemical weapons use are not important, or that international fora should not be fully embraced. But wishful thinking is not a strategy and American interests can only be protected if there is a clear vision of what those interests are and a credible policy exists that is designed to promote them. The President has put the pieces in place and Assad’s brazen and insincere behavior has made the reality clear. Syria’s chemical weapons will never be secure as long as Bashar al Assad remains in power leading a violent campaign against the Syrian people.
Bradley Bosserman is a policy analyst at NDN and the New Policy Institute where he serves as Director of the Middle East and North Africa Initiative. Previously he worked on defense, security, and grand strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).