I watched with bemusement how everyone, Obama Administration supporters and critics alike, jumped at the idea of putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. Has the world developed collective amnesia? Have we all forgotten the effort in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to cleanse Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how that ended? Why would we want to do it again in the middle of a shooting war?
For those too young to remember, after Desert Storm Iraq was required by the UN Security Council to give up its WMD under international inspections. Thus began a decade-long saga of economic sanctions, intrigue, prevarication, threats, intimidation and military strikes. The Clinton Administration struggled for its entire eight years with the burden of Iraq inspections, fighting with Saddam Hussein who continually hampered the effort, the UN inspections organization UNSCOM, other members of the Security Council and countries in the region. The Iraqi government cooperated, then it didn’t, then it did. In the meantime it was hiding as much of its WMD assets as it could. In December 1998 the U.S. responded to the Iraqi government’s decision to order the UN inspectors out of the country by launching some 200 cruise missiles. It took regime change in 2003 for the real state of Iraq’s WMD programs to be uncovered.
Now it is suggested that a similar effort be undertaken for Syria’s chemical weapons. The idea that this could be done easily or rapidly is nonsense. Remember that until yesterday the Assad regime claimed they didn’t even have chemical weapons. We don’t even know the true size of Syria’s chemical arsenal or where all the weapons and material are stored; only an intensive, protracted and nationwide inspection effort will tell us. Collecting and securing the weapons, an unknown percentage of which may be unsafe to handle, will require additional time. Demilitarizing chemical weapons is a laborious process only performed in a couple of places in the world.
Nor are we certain how rapidly that stockpile could be reconstituted. Will the inspectors be empowered to continually monitor production facilities? How about transfers from North Korea, another country that hasn’t signed the Chemical Warfare Convention? The logic of the President’s case for attacking Syria would seem to require both securing the current chemical stockpile and also preventing them from acquiring more. That might require continuous monitoring of the regime’s activities, possibly inspections lasting not just months but years.
Also, we don’t know how forthcoming the Assad regime will be. Just yesterday, Secretary Kerry characterized President Assad as Adolph Hitler-like. Yet, this is the individual on whom the inspectors would have to depend for access to Syria, security when on the ground, transportation and even information on his country’s chemical weapons stockpiles and programs. If Assad does a Saddam Hussein we would be right back where we started. Actually, it would be worse since the Syrian President then would be in violation of one or more UN resolutions and President Obama would feel required to make an even more serious military response. The effort to avoid having to make a limited attack on Syria could morph into the requirement for a major air campaign. That is what eventually happened in Iraq.
But even if Assad decided to be completely transparent, there is the small problem of a civil war going on in Syria. Who wants to move chemical munitions across free-fire zones? And move them to where, Lebanon, which is the home of Assad’s ally Hezbollah? Won’t moving these weapons and concentrating them in UN controlled sites make them more vulnerable to theft by Al Qaeda forces? The process of inspecting, locating, collecting, securing and moving Syria’s chemical stockpile will take months. Meanwhile, the conflict will continue and possibly even intensify.
Trying to secure Syria’s chemical stockpile could be worse than any plan the Obama Administration had for airstrikes. Better to launch an “incredibly small” strike into an empty part of the Syrian desert and go play a round of golf.
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