Print Page

Syria's Chemical Weapons 

Up for Debate welcomes suggestions from readers: What questions should FAS be asking? Please e-mail your ideas for debates, as well as experts whose insights you'd like to read to [email protected].

Slideshow image
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6


September 15, 2012: Will Nuclear Energy Lead to Energy Independence in the United States?
August 1, 2012: Should the United States Rethink Sanctions Against Iran?
July 16, 2012: The Risks and Benefits of Laser Isotope Separation (LIS)


October 22, 2012: Risks and Benefits of U.S. Military Intervention to Secure Syria’s Chemical Weapons


  • Mr. Doug Bandow, The CATO Institute (CATO) (Twitter: )
  • Mr. Luke D. Coffey, The Heritage Foundation. (Twitter: )

    In 2001 testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Governmental Affairs, Jonathan B. Tucker, Director of Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, testified that “Syria has one of the largest and most advanced chemical warfare capabilities in the Middle East.” These include potentially stockpiles of sarin, VX nerve agent, and mustard agent. A 2011 unclassified report to Congress said Syria’s chemical weapons “can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.”

    The U.S. has monitored closely these stockpiles as the Syrian civil war continues. However, recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted that stockpiles have been moved without U.S. knowledge. Some have called for military intervention to secure those stockpiles, which threaten the Syrian people, the U.S., or its allies. Others argue that a military intervention would worsen the situation, leading potentially to the use of those chemical weapons.

    Mr. Doug Bandow of The CATO Institute and Mr. Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation debate below the risks and benefits of a U.S. military intervention to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. 



    Mr. Doug Bandow,  (Twitter:  The CATO Institute (CATO)

    Syria:  The Wages of Loose WMDs? 

    The tragic Syrian civil war continues.  President Bashar al-Assad is the most likely loser, but many more people will die before the conflict ends.  Although the usual warhawks are beating the drums for U.S. intervention, Americans have nothing at stake which warrants joining another war in the Middle East.  The U.S. military is not an answer to every international problem.

    A Syrian implosion almost certainly would be messy.  Of particular concern is the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons (it also may have a limited supply of biological agents).  However, for Washington the greatest danger would be their use in defending against direct American military involvement.  Weapons leakage in the midst of regime collapse would be of much greater concern to Syria’s neighbors. 

    Washington policymakers have trouble resisting the temptation to intervene.  However, there is no answer in Syria to the question:  how does it end?  There’s no reason to believe that intervening there would yield better results than in, say, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

    Nor can the U.S. afford to continue playing globocop.  Being prepared to fight everywhere is why America accounts for roughly half of the globe’s military outlays.  While some conflicts, such as Libya, were relatively cheap, others, most obviously Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to drain the Treasury.  Washington must pare back its military role, force structure, and budget.

    The Syrian imbroglio, though tragic, has little direct strategic impact on America.  Nor is there a compelling humanitarian argument for intervention.  Despite significant civilian casualties, the conflict falls far short of genocide.  Moreover, U.S. intervention would more likely transform than end the bloodshed, while sucking American forces into another long-term killing ground. 

    However, fear over Syria’s chemical weapons remains.  Thankfully, the U.S. would be an unlikely target of any which escaped the control of “responsible” authorities, whoever they may be.  Although classed as WMDs, chemical weapons are less fearsome than either their nuclear or biological counterparts.  The former are less destructive, more difficult to use, and easier to counter.  Americans probably have more to fear from a terrorist assault using anti-aircraft missiles stolen from Moammar Kaddafi’s well-stocked military cupboard than escaped Syrian chemical agents.

    Still, if the U.S. could easily sweep up Syria’s arsenal, it should do so.  But those clamoring for intervention offer no such plan.  A ground invasion, the only certain means, is the one scenario under which the Assad regime likely would deploy the weapons—against America.  Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi warned his nation’s WMD stocks “are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”

    Establishing a no-fly zone over the country or “safe” zones for refugees or fighters, or arming the opposition would only make Assad’s fall more likely, loosening control over the chemical arsenal.  However strong the justification for promoting the regime’s overthrow is, Washington could not complain about the consequences if it chose to destabilize Syria.

    The better plan would be consider options should the regime disintegrate.  That might warrant an attempt to secure Syria’s chemical weapons—but it should be launched by those nations which are closest and have most at risk.  After all, should Damascus lose control over its WMDs, they are most likely to end up used nearby.

    Israel has the greatest fears and capabilities.  In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his nation was “ready to act” to prevent Syria’s weapons from falling into Hezbollah’s hands.  Turkey also has much at stake—imagine Kurdish rebels gaining access to chemical weapons—as well as a competent military.  Ankara seeks greater regional influence; it could achieve this end by helping to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

    Fans of U.S. dominance or hegemony—usually disguised as general calls for American “leadership”—rue the idea of any nation anywhere acting outside of Washington’s control.  However, the U.S. has been bogged down by continuous war over minimal stakes for more than a decade.  The federal government functionally bankrupt.  Rather than attempting to micro-manage the world, Washington must not just allow but expect its populous and prosperous allies to take over responsibility for their own and their respective regions’ security.

    There is no good solution for the Syrian tragedy.  Civil wars typically are the worst of conflicts.  Syria’s ethnic and religious divisions make the war unlikely to end well.  But Washington lacks the ability to make things right.

    Syria’s possession of chemical weapons merely reinforces that case against American intervention.  The problems and solutions primarily lie with regional parties, not the U.S.



    Mr. Luke D. Coffey, (Twitter: ) The Heritage Foundation 

    As the security situation in Syria deteriorates, concern about the Assad regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons rises. Will the regime use chemical weapons on its own people?  Will these weapons find their way to terrorist organizations in the region?

    These concerns are not without justification. Syria is known to possess a sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons. The exact size, disposition and configuration of these assets remain unknown, but the regime is estimated to have hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents, with the capability of producing several hundred tons more per year. Further complicating matters, the storage and production sites for these weapons are said to be scattered around the country in dozens of locations. If Libya is anything to go by, the West likely knows less than it thinks it does regarding Syria’s chemical weapons program.

    The most immediate threat is that the regime would use chemical weapons against the opposition forces.  Due to the non-discriminatory nature of chemical weapons, this could have a devastating impact on the civilian population. However, if Syria’s chemical weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists, it could have horrific consequences for regional, if not international, stability. Consider the repercussions of a chemical attack on Israel, for example.

    U.S. targets in the region would also be at risk—from the thousands of American troops based along the Gulf to our troops fighting in Afghanistan. Syrian artillery shells armed with chemical agents could find their way to the roadside bomb making laboratories in Iran or northern Pakistan.  And that wouldn’t be a first either. A roadside bomb containing nerve gas was used against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004.  Luckily, it was a one-off event and did not start a trend. 

    The threat extends beyond U.S. military targets in the region to civilian targets of economic importance. Imagine a chemical attack on Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, the Jordanian port city of Aqaba on the Red Sea or even the Suez Canal. With the right weather conditions, an attack involving persistent chemical agents such as blister or VX gas could halt commerce for weeks.

    There is no easy solution for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. The Pentagon estimated that it could require 75,000 troops to properly secure the regime’s chemical weapons sites. To most, this seems an unrealistic option. However, prudent steps can be taken to mitigate the risks without deploying tens of thousands of American soldiers.

    First, the U.S. must work to build international consensus on this issue—with particular attention to bringing Russia and China on board. Both should be reminded that they face threats from Islamic terrorism inside their borders and that loose chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists could threaten their security, too. The U.S. should also encourage Turkey and the Arab League to make it clear to Assad that the use of chemical weapons would be a redline for regional military involvement. If tens of thousands of troops are required, the ideal situation would be for U.S. chemical weapons experts to augment Arab troops, which should form the bulk of any force.

    Secondly, the U.S. should continue to gather intelligence and work with allies such as the UK, France and Israel to increase situational awareness about Syria’s chemical weapons. If any actionable intelligence shows that chemical weapons are being smuggled out of Syria, the U.S. must be prepared to act, using Special Operations forces if required.

    Thirdly, as weapons sites fall within the control of opposition forces, the U.S. needs to be prepared to send teams of experts, with the skills required for detection, monitoring, and securing chemical weapons, to assist the opposition forces. Cooperation with Syria’s neighbors to prevent smuggling is also important. This could include training and equipping their border guards. This will take time, however.  It should have been started 18 months ago, when Syria started to implode.

    Assad’s chemical weapons present a clear and present danger—not just to Syrian opposition forces, but to U.S. and allied military and economic interests in the region. There is no silver bullet to ensure complete security and accountability of the regime’s weapons—especially in the event of a total breakdown of security in the country—but steps can be taken to mitigate the risks. With so much at stake, adequate measures must be taken now, before it is too late. 




    Leave and read comments below


    bandowMr. Doug Bandow (Twitter: @Mark_J_Perry)is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest,Wall Street Journal, and Washington Times. Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. He holds a J.D. from Stanford University. 



    Mr. Luke Coffey (Twitter: ) works on U.S.-UK relations as the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He focuses on defense and security matters, including the role of NATO and the European Union in transatlantic security. Before joining the Heritage Foundation in 2012, Coffey served at the UK Ministry of Defence as senior special adviser to then-British Defence Secretary Liam Fox. He was the only non-UK citizen appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to provide advice to senior British ministers. Until going to the Ministry of Defence in 2010, Coffey worked in the House of Commons as an adviser on defense and security issues for the Conservative Party. He helped develop and implement policy initiatives on security and defense matters, in particular drafting the defense section of the party’s 2010 election manifesto. Coffey’s work in British politics followed his service to the United States as a commissioned officer in the Army. He spent his entire time on active duty overseas and was stationed in Italy with the Army’s Southern European Task Force. In 2005, Coffey deployed to Afghanistan for a year. He was responsible for developing theater-level policies for enemy detainees in U.S. custody, in support of counterinsurgency strategy. Coffey received a master of science degree in the politics and government of the European Union from the London School of Economics. He also holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an associate of arts degree in military science from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo.


    Last updated Ocotber 22, 2012 12:00 PM



    Have a comment about the above debate? Leave it below.

    comments powered by Disqus