Are Chemical Weapons A Game-Changer?


Stephen Walt doesn’t see why they should be:

Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.

The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad’s forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.

Max Fisher points out that half of Americans can’t identify Syria on a map:

[B]eing able to correctly identify Syria on a map obviously does not preclude an individual from expressing strong views about the country or what Obama should do about it. But it does add a bit more credence to the perception that Syria is not exactly at the center of America’s national attention right now. And that in turn might make some sort of assertive and potentially risky U.S.-led military action in Syria, whatever its merits or downsides, a bit less likely.

What’s striking to me is that even McCain and Butters are reluctant to send in troops. And I agree with Walt that the methods of mass extermination are a little irrelevant to the corpses. Still, the fundamental fear is the following: that intervention is insane; but that letting this conflict run its course could lead to chemical weapons being used by the al Nusri brigade, the major Islamist force now swearing allegiance to al Qaeda. For a chilling update, check out this report in the Telegraph.

The size of the chemical arsenal is perhaps the fourth in the world, hidden all over the country now teetering out of the dictator’s control. Air-strikes would be unlikely to work:

“Airstrikes aren’t reliable because they can just release all the chemical agents into the air,” [Dina Esfandiary, an expert on Syria’s WMD programme with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based defence and security think-tank] said. “Alternatively, they only do half the job and then render a secure site open to looters.”

Nor, she added, would quick-fire raids by small teams of special forces be an alternative. “You would have to first secure the sites and then do a careful analysis of what was there, followed by controlled explosions. It is, frankly, a labour intensive job, and that is why the Pentagon assessed it as requiring 75,000 men. “Besides, there may be any number of caches hidden all over the place, and even if you could look for them properly – which is difficult with a civil war going on – you would run the risk of some being left behind.”

Recall that the entire rationale for the invasion of Iraq was to prevent chemical, biological or nuclear elements getting into the hands of al Qaeda. Those WMDs did not exist; but Assad’s do. And on a subway train in New York or London, just a small attack could wreak panic and havoc and death on a large scale.

Recent Dish on Syria’s chemical weapons here.

(Photo: A picture taken on April 26, 2013 shows a plastic bottle, coal, cotton, gauze, cola, and cardboard that are used by members of the al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam brigade to assemble homemade gas-masks for protection against chemical weapons, in Syria’s northern Latakia province. By Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)