Syria possesses chemical weapons. This unsurprising news has generated professions of shock and horror from world leaders. But the existence of Syria’s deadly arsenal is another good reason for the United States to stay out of that nation’s worsening civil war.
The ongoing fighting has excited the usual demands for U.S. intervention. But outside intervention rarely is simple or cheap, and usually the unintended consequences are many, as evident in the debacle in Iraq. If Washington breaks another country, it will bear responsibility for fixing it, something the United States has spent nearly eleven years trying to do in Afghanistan. War should be a last resort, not just another policy choice. The specter of Assad’s chemical-weapons arsenal makes it even more imperative to realistically assess U.S. interests in the region.
Outrage or Hypocrisy?
To be sure, Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile adds another complication to the hostilities. The regime could deploy chemical weapons as a last resort against the opposition. Syria’s neighbors, and especially Israel, worry that regime collapse might spread WMDs throughout the Middle East and perhaps beyond. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel—the Middle East’s premier nuclear power that also possesses chemical and possibly biological weapons—was “ready to act” to seize Syria’s weapons to prevent them from falling into Hezbollah’s hands.
The stakes in Syria rose even higher when Damascus warned that it would deploy chemical weapons, which it previously denied possessing, against foreign invaders. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stated: “Any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses” would not be used against the Syrian people but “are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Great shock and outrage was expressed in response. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon intoned: “It would be reprehensible if anyone in Syria would use weapons of mass destruction.”
The rhetoric soared even higher from nations threatening to attack Syria. The European Union, most of whose members are in NATO, declared itself to be “seriously concerned.” British foreign secretary William Hague, representing a nuclear power, announced that “it is unacceptable to say that they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances.” German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, whose country actually has deployed chemical weapons in combat, called the suggestion “monstrous.”
President Barack Obama joined the chorus: “Given the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching and that they will be held strictly accountable by the international community, and the United States, should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons.” He didn’t mention that America has the deadliest WMD arsenal in the world.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland elaborated: “that kind of loose talk just speaks to the kind of regime that we’re talking about.” Of course, she is part of an administration in which there has been much loose talk about intervening against Syria with military force.
The Western reaction to Makdissi’s statement is pure hypocrisy. No one doubts that American, British, French and Israeli officials would use everything in their arsenals, including nuclear weapons, if they believed doing so was necessary for their nation’s defense. Moreover, Damascus has much to fear: the United States, NATO and Israel routinely bomb and invade other nations, and the Assad regime has been the target of a concerted international campaign pushing military action against Syria. On its own terms, Damascus’s threat is neither surprising nor unreasonable.
Not all WMDs are Equal
Moreover, the dangers of the Syrian chemical arsenal have been vastly exaggerated. Columnist Austin Bay warned that “If the regime fails, then the evil genie of mass death may escape to haunt the Middle East and potentially the world.” He worried that “the WMDs serve as an insurance policy, wrapped within a suicide pact” and offer a “tin-pot 21st century version of mutual assured destruction (MAD) thermonuclear brinksmanship.”