Syrian WMD May Soon Slip Away

The task of securing Assad's chemical arsenal is simply too big for America's covert forces.

The Pakistani moment of truth is coming all too soon—in Syria. For more than a decade, security experts agreed that the greatest threat to the security of the United States is the combination of terrorists and WMD. Pakistan was widely considered the place this is most likely to happen.

Now we must expect that shortly jihadists will acquire WMD in Syria as the Assad regime collapses. True, chemical arms are less lethal than nukes, but in Syria they make up in the number and vicious variety what each lacks in relative killing power.

The United States, its allies and the UN did well to warn Assad that there would be “consequences” if he employed these weapons, after intelligence sources reported that his troops were mixing and transporting chemical agents. Why these warnings stated that these consequences will follow if he uses these arms “against his own people” is far from obvious, because this wording makes it sound as if it would be acceptable if Assad used these agents against anybody else. In any case, Assad seems to have desisted.

Now, as Assad’s regime seems to about to fall, the main danger is that jihadists will get hold of these arms, especially if the ends comes without a political settlement that will allow elements of the Syrian army to remain in place. (Recall the utter anarchy that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime when the Iraqi army was first defeated and then disbanded). The United States and other NATO members, in particular the Czech Republic, are reported to be training the jihadists in how to safely deal with chemical arms.

Surely if jihadists are to keep these weapons—they better learn how to deal with them safely. However, allowing them to keep these agents is about as bad an idea as they come. The rebels in Syria include card-carrying members and sympathizers of Al Qaeda, militant fighters from other nations and home-grown ones. They do not agree with one another on many issues; their unstable coalition is utterly unreliable. They could readily share these weapons of mass destruction with their allies in other nations, above all with the close-by Hezbollah and Al Qaeda remnants in Iraq.

The United States could try to purchase these arms from the rebels the way it tried to buy shoulder-to-air anti-aircraft missiles in Libya. But given the large number of these arms and the fact are dispersed all over the country, these arms will likely need to be captured—just as if nukes got loose in Pakistan.

There are some reports that the United States is training Jordanian Special Forces and some others to grab these arms. And one must assume that the U.S. Navy SEALs and a bunch of others are racing toward Syria. However, this is the place the so-called Obama doctrine—a light footprint, not involving boots on the ground—is reaching its limits. However high a regard one has for Special Forces, CIA agents and drones—which I do—the task is simply too big for them to be able to carry it out on their own. Even adding in some bombings against those sites that can be safely destroyed that way will not do. The Pentagon estimates that it would need some 75,000 troops to do the job.

The trouble is that U.S. rapid-deployment forces are underdeveloped and not well-located. The United States has been moving troops and equipment out of the Near East and “pivoting” toward the Far East. How quickly these imbalances can be corrected we shall see in the coming days. However, it is essential that we not allow these WMD to fall into the hands of terrorists because of a doctrine against the use of conventional forces on the ground. Nor should the threat be minimized because the needed forces have been stationed elsewhere—in places such as Guam, Japan, Singapore, Cambodia (trainers), Vietnam (advisers) and even Australia (Marines)—in the pursuit of a new, much less pressing, mission.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

Image: Flickr/Shawn Rossi.