The Menace of Syrian Chemical Weapons

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After standing on the sidelines for 21 months while Syrian dictator Bashar Assad slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people, President Obama recently warned that Assad will cross a "red line" if he uses his chemical arsenal. "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons," he said, "there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable."

Western officials should be concerned about any attempt by Assad to use mustard gas or nerve agents against his brutalized people. But this attention on Syria's chemical weapons overshadows the stark fate of the Syrian people and exaggerates the importance of chemical weapons in 21st-century warfare.

Chemical weapons were first used on a large scale amid the trench warfare of World War I, resulting in as many as 90,000 deaths and a million casualties by war's end. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union accumulated significant chemical-weapons stockpiles. But as science and weapon technology progressed, chemical weapons became increasingly irrelevant to modern war fighting. Today, all but eight countries—Syria, Angola, Egypt, Israel, Burma, North Korea, Somalia and South Sudan—are party to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention that bans the stockpile and use of such weapons. The U.S., Russia and Libya are in the process of destroying their arsenals, and several others, including Albania and India, already have.

There is always the concern that some states, such as China, Russia or Iran, may be violating their treaty obligations. But most attention in the nonproliferation community has shifted away from the use of chemical-weapons stockpiles on the battlefield to the dangers of their proliferation and potential use by terrorists.

This isn't to say that the U.S. and its allies shouldn't be concerned about Assad's chemical arsenal. These weapons can have a devastating impact.

However, in the age of cellphones, Twitter and Facebook, it is likely that any such use today would immediately be broadcast around the world, hopefully shortening the time it takes for the international community to respond. In 1988, it took seven weeks before the U.N. Security Council (indirectly) condemned Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja, an attack that killed some 5,000 men, women and children and injured many more.

Given that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would likely result in outside intervention, which Assad clearly wishes to avoid, a greater threat might be what happens to his chemical arsenal once his regime collapses and the stockpiles go unprotected.

This could result in chemical weapons or related materiel falling into the hands of a terrorist group that could use them elsewhere in the region. Casualties are unlikely to be on the scale of Halabja or World War I, but such an attack would cause panic among Western publics.

When the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi fell last year, its small declared chemical-weapons stockpile (undergoing destruction at one site) was quickly secured, as were several other small caches that Gadhafi had failed to declare. But thousands of conventional weapons proliferated because of American and European unwillingness to back an external stabilization force.

The Obama administration, failing to learn the lessons of Libya, is reportedly planning for a light-footprint approach in Syria should the Assad regime fall. Options include relying on small teams of Special Operations Forces, thousands of Jordanian soldiers, or contractor-trained rebel forces to secure the chemical-weapons sites.

Large-scale transportation of Syria's stockpile will be difficult and on-site destruction (as the delayed destruction programs of the U.S., Russia and Libya attest) will take time, likely years. Relying on a ragtag, outsourced force for security over a long period of time would be the height of wishful thinking.

If Mr. Obama is serious about ensuring that terrorists don't get their hands on weapons that could be used against American interests or personnel in the region or even on the U.S. homeland, the only solution is early and sustained planning to stabilize a post-Assad Syria.

Veiled threats against the Assad regime—after nearly two years of benign neglect toward the chaos in Syria—won't be enough to protect Americans and our allies. And they certainly won't help Syrians rid themselves of Bashar Assad.

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