by Dina Esfandiary
In a letter to Congress last week, the White House confirmed “with varying degrees of confidence” that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. This has led to a flurry of assertions that something must now be done – Bashar al-Assad’s crimes cannot go unpunished. But is there enough information to justify action? More importantly, can the US and the rest of the international community actually do much?
The quick answer to both questions is no.
The UK and France have obtained samples from inside Syria that have tested positive for traces of a Sarin by-product. Videos and pictures show victims suffering symptoms similar to those caused by certain chemical weapons (although foaming of the mouth is not usually a symptom of Sarin exposure). The information has been corroborated with witness testimonies. This is credible but not definitive.
There is no information about the exact location or timing of the alleged attack. The physiological samples show individuals were exposed but they do not clarify where, when or how. This makes it difficult to ascertain whether it was an actual attack or just an accidental release of agents from a broken or lost canister.
The samples and interviews do not point the finger at Assad in any definitive manner. It would be reasonable to assume the agents came from the regime — after all, Assad has spent the last four decades developing his chemical weapons arsenal into the biggest in the Middle East. But the evidence is not unequivocal. If intentional, it is possible the agents were released by a rogue general or rebels that have somehow come across Sarin canisters. Unlikely, perhaps, but not impossible.
The limited scale of the alleged attack also raises a number of questions. Why risk large-scale international retribution for such a small result? Chemical weapons are effective weapons of terror, but Assad is not short of means of terrorizing his enemies. Why run the risk of intervention for so little gain? Especially at a time when US policy priority has shifted from deposing Assad to ensuring Islamists do not come to power in Syria.
The uncertainty surrounding these allegations and the small scale of the alleged attack make it difficult to say for certain that Assad has crossed the US’ red line. “Suspicions are one thing; evidence is another”, said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week.
But the problems do not stop there. If the allegations are proven correct, the options for responding are not attractive.
Some Israeli officials have called for military action to “curb” Syria’s chemical weapons. But this is different (and much more difficult) than military action in response to the use of chemical weapons. A military response to the alleged crossing of the red line could include air strikes on Syrian military installations (rather than just chemical weapons facilities) for example. But using air strikes to secure Syria’s chemical weapons is risky, especially when the location and size of the facilities are unconfirmed. More importantly, what if as a result of the airstrikes, some of the agents were released into the atmosphere? The consequences would be devastating. Add to that Syria’s robust air defences and the possibility that some munitions will survive and be open to looting, and doing nothing suddenly looks like a good idea.
The other option is to send troops in. But the lack of accurate intelligence on the location and size of Syria’s stockpiles makes this difficult. In a sea of uncertainty, the one thing the international community is sure of is that Assad’s stockpiles are large (the largest in the Middle East) and dispersed. In fact, so much so that in November, the Pentagon told the White House that upward of 75,000 troops would be needed to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. Is the US ready for another invasion of a Middle Eastern country and a treasure hunt to find all facilities and stockpiles in the context of civil war, where foreign troops would be a prime target?
It is difficult to idly sit by while the crisis in Syria escalates. But the US and the international community cannot jump into another war in the region based on assumptions. And given the existing circumstances and options, securing Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles will require more persuasion and negotiation than brute force.
– Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate and foreign affairs and security analyst focusing on Iran, the Middle East and nuclear issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Photo: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel briefs the press in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on April 25, 2013. Hagel announced that the White House released a statement that it has evidence that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has used chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.