Legality of US Airstrike in Syria, & More from CRS

Public debate over the legal authority for the April 6 U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase is reviewed in a new brief from the Congressional Research Service, which stops short of proposing a conclusion of its own.

“It remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration will release a statement explaining its legal basis for the missile strike under international law, but even if such a statement is forthcoming, it seems unlikely that it would put an end to this debate,” the CRS brief said. See U.S. Strike on Syrian Airbase: Legal under International Law?, CRS Legal Sidebar, April 17, 2017.

Other new reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

The Marshall Plan: 70th Anniversary, CRS Insight, April 18, 2017

U.S.-UK Free Trade Agreement: Prospects and Issues for Congress, April 14, 2017

France’s 2017 Presidential Election: In Brief, April 13, 2017

Border-Adjusted Consumption Taxes and Exchange Rate Movements: Theory and Evidence, April 18, 2017

The Revenue Baseline for Tax Reform, CRS Insight, April 14, 2017

Congressional News Media and the House and Senate Press Galleries, April 13, 2017

NASS and U.S. Crop Production Forecasts: Methods and Issues, April 13, 2017

Dressed to the Nines: What’s Next for the Nine-Justice Supreme Court, CRS Legal Sidebar, April 10, 2017

Westinghouse Bankruptcy Filing Could Put New U.S. Nuclear Projects at Risk, CRS Insight, April 19, 2017

CIA Underestimates the Population of Syria

The population of Syria is 17,951,639, according to the CIA World Factbook.

That figure (oddly identified as a “July 2014” estimate) is wrong, according to everyone else.

The discrepancy was noted yesterday in the intelligence newsletter Nightwatch.

“NightWatch consulted six separate sources for the total population of Syria. They agreed that it is between 22 and 23 million people, not 17.9 million as indicated in the CIA World Factbook. There are about 7 million Syrians under voting age of 18 and more than 15 million registered voters,” the newsletter said.

“NightWatch relies on the CIA World Factbook as a standard reference for unclassified factual, baseline information, as does the Intelligence Community. On three occasions since 2006, NightWatch has found errors in the Factbook,” the newsletter added. “This was the third occasion.”

A Congressional Research Service report last month also cites a total Syrian population of “more than 22 million.”

Errors, of course, are to be expected– even, and especially, in intelligence publications. One great virtue of the CIA World Factbook is that it is a public document. This makes it possible for readers to identify such errors, to draw attention to them, and to promote their correction.

Why Russia Resists a UN Resolution on Syria

United Nations Security CouncilThe mainstream media has largely failed to mention one of the main reasons Russia has been resisting a UN Security Council Resolution which would allow the use of force if the US believes that Syria has failed to meet its obligations. Back in March 2011, Russia allowed UNSC Resolution 1973 which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. The West then used that resolution as the basis for air attacks leading to regime change and Gaddafi’s murder — an interpretation of the resolution with which Russia strongly disagrees.

The Russians are afraid that any mention of the use of force in a new UN Security Council Resolution on Syria will be similarly misused for regime change. Russia’s fears are reinforced by the Obama administration  repeatedly saying that “Assad must go,” and its patience was tried when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “despicable” for maintaining its concerns.

Helping to overthrow Gaddafi (as opposed to protecting civilians) also hurt our reputation as a trustworthy partner because, when Gaddafi gave up his WMD programs in 2003,President Bush promised that his good behavior would be rewarded:

Today in Tripoli, the leader of Libya, Colonel Moammar al-Ghadafi, publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country. … And another message should be equally clear: leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations. … As the Libyan government takes these essential steps and demonstrates its seriousness, its good faith will be returned. Libya can regain a secure and respected place among the nations, and over time, achieve far better relations with the United States. … old hostilities do not need to go on forever. And I hope that other leaders will find an example in Libya’s announcement today.

The following excerpts from a March 2011 North Korean press release convey an idea of how Russia, China, Iran and other nations with which we have disputes see us as a result of our helping to overthrow Gaddafi after giving such assurances:

The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that “Libya′s nuclear dismantlement” much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world. The DPRK was quite just when it took the path of Songun [“Military First”] and the military capacity for self-defence built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

We are right to deplore the human tragedy in Syria and to seek ways to reduce the suffering. But we need to more carefully consider the consequences of our actions, both for the Syrian people and in terms of our reputation as a trustworthy negotiating partner.  Diplomacy can work only if all involved parties have a reasonable track record of adhering to their earlier commitments. And without diplomacy, there will almost surely be war.


About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

The post Why Russia Resists a UN Resolution on Syria appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Event: The Chemicals, Conflict and Challenges in Syria

syrian_flag-indepth_bannerWith pressure from the U.S. and Russia, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013 and agreed to participate in an accelerated process to destroy the chemical weapons. While this has been received as an unexpected yet positive development, the implementation of such a process raises significant science and security issues.

The Federation of American Scientists and the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are hosting an event on Wednesday,October 23 at 5 p.m. in Washington, DC on the science and security involved in the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118 in Syria.

Speakers will explore the technical, political, and regional issues surrounding chemical weapons in Syria including: technical solutions and expertise required to ensure accelerated destruction of chemical weapons; the broader regional impact of Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention; and the challenges involved in carrying out destruction in a civil war environment.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

5:00 p.m: Program and discussion

6:30 p.m: Light refreshments


American Association for the Advancement of Science

2nd Floor

1200 New York Avenue NW (Enter at corner of 12th and H Street)

Washington, DC 20005


Dr. Paul Walker, Green Cross International

Mr. Michael Moodie, International CBW Commentator

Dr. Chen Kane, Center for Nonproliferation Studies


Please RSVP by October 21, 2013 here.


Please contact Katie Colten via e-mail at [email protected] or phone at 202-454-4694.

The Syrian Civil War and WMDs

On September 5, 2013, Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats Charles Blair spoke to staff at the Government Accountability Office in Washington, DC on the current conflict in Syria and the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Slides from the presentation which include information on chemical weapons, the incidents in Syria and possible U.S. intervention can be found here.

Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria

belle syriaThere are strong indications that President Obama will take military action against Syria,  even though several key questions have not been answered.

First, what good will an American attack do? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told Congress, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. … It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Second, what harm will an American attack do? There is evidence that keeping this civil war going will increase the fighting strength of al Qaeda. In addition to threatening our own nation, that also increases the risk of chaos in the Russian Federation, particularly its Chechen Republic. Unrest in a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons – especially when pointed at us – is a threat to our national security. And, as the Boston Marathon bombing shows, Chechen jihadists are not solely a threat to Russia, but to us as well.

Third, how certain are we about who is responsible for the recent chemical weapons attacks? Today, George Kenney has an excellent article on the Huffington Post, which notes:

… it remains far from clear who did it. None of the many insurgent groups are saints; to be honest, with the fighting going against the insurgency in recent months there would be far greater incentives on their side to use chemical weapons, in the hope of triggering western intervention, than there would be on the part of Syrian government forces. …

During the Bosnian civil war the Bosnian Muslims skillfully leveraged the propaganda value of various massacres to catalyze western intervention. Yet in many cases the identity of the perpetrators was in doubt. From my own several stays in the besieged city of Sarajevo during the war, my own inspection of alleged mortar impact sites (from the “flower” a mortar/bomb impact leaves in pavement an expert can estimate direction and angle of attack), and my conversations both with very senior, serving U.S. officers (one major general, for example, told me if it had always been the Serbs he only wished the U.S. Army had a few mortar squads with that ability to make impossible shots) and with senior UN military officers on the scene, I concluded that some of the more sensational attacks, such as the Markale massacre, were carried out by Bosnian Muslim forces against their own civilians. A few seasoned western reporters concluded the same. To be fair, the evidence was never absolutely definitive and a rancorous debate continues to this day. Shocking, but such is the nature of war.

Fourth, do we have any options other than doing nothing or attacking Assad? Most accounts assume those are our only two options, but as George Kenney’s article concludes:

If the U.S. government feels that it has to do something, the best thing and, to be honest, the only thing — at the moment — is to provide assistance to the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced, and redouble our efforts at diplomacy.

A diplomatic solution would be the best of all possible worlds, but will never happen so long as our bottom line is “Assad must go.” Given the fate of some other deposed Middle East rulers – Gaddafi was killed and Mubarak was thrown in jail – there is no way Assad will negotiate on those terms.

Given our painful experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, isn’t it time we thought things through more carefully before pulling the trigger on military action yet again?

Martin Hellman

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8.

Additional Reference: After I wrote this post, a highly relevant interview came to my attention in today’s Christian Science Monitor. The headline gives the gist, “In an interview, Hans Blix (chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000-2003) says: If US military action in Syria is all about ‘punishing’ Bashar al-Assad to satisfy public and media opinion without even hearing the UN inspectors report, it will be a sad day for international legality.” Blix makes a number of important points which warrant our attention before taking military action.

The post Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Up for Debate: Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Mr. Doug Bandow of The CATO Institute and Mr. Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation debate below about whether military intervention by the U.S. to secure Syria’s chemical stockpiles could worsen the situation, leading potentially to the use of those chemical weapons

Debate: Risks and Benefits of U.S. Military Intervention to Secure Syria’s Chemical Weapons

n 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  the risks and benefits of a U.S. military intervention to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

Mr. Doug Bandow, 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 US.


Mr. Luke D. CoffeyThe 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.


About the Debaters:

Mr. Doug Bandow 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 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.


About Up for Debate:

In Up For Debate, FAS invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss science policy and security issues. This debate among experts is conducted via email and posted on FAS invites a demographically and ideologically diverse group to comment – a unique FAS feature that allows readers to reach conclusions based on both sides of an argument rather than just one point of view.


Please read the guidelines for the official debate and rebuttal policy for participants of FAS’s ‘Up For Debate.’ All participants are required to follow these rules. Each opinion must stay on topic and feature relevant content, or be a rebuttal. No ad hominem and personal attacks, name calling, libel, or defamation is allowed, and proper citations must be given.