The U.S. threat regarding Syria’s unconventional weapons is, to quote BBC Newsnight’s diplomatic and defense editor Mark Urban, “one of those ‘sit up and take notice’ moments.”
President Barack Obama has warned that he could deploy American forces in Syria if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” his first direct threat of force against the Assad regime since the uprising began. A British echo swiftly followed, with the government talking of a “revisit” of its approach so far.
“Obama’s threats are simply propaganda linked to the U.S. elections,” said Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs. I would not be so dismissive, particularly in light of Obama’s statement that contingency plans have been drawn up. This is a very serious development that has drawn sharp condemnation from the Assad regime’s main allies.
“There should be no interference from the outside,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who, after meeting China’s ambassador, added that Moscow and Beijing were committed to “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law...and not to allow their violation.” China’s state news agency Xinhua accused the West of “digging deep for excuses to intervene militarily,” describing Obama’s warning as “dangerously irresponsible.”
I have supported the goals and aspirations of Syria’s revolution from the outset, but I oppose the realization of Obama’s threat, and so should those, like me, who yearn for an end to the Assad regime. The warning was not made out of concern for the Syrian people - if that was the case, Obama’s “red line” would have been the killing of thousands upon thousands of civilians, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands.
The “concern” he highlighted was among “allies in the region,” of which Israel was the only one specifically named. This may or may not be shameless electioneering, but either way it compounds suspicions by many in the Middle East and beyond that U.S. involvement regarding Syria stems simply from the desire to increase its regional hegemony, and that of Israel. Indeed, Obama’s contingency plans involve working with allies including - you guessed it - Israel.
His threat is also puzzling, given that the Assad regime had previously said it would only use unconventional weapons against “external aggression,” and “never” against Syrians, “no matter what the internal developments.” As such, a deployment by the U.S. or Israel - which has also raised the possibility of military action - may actually cause the use of chemical weapons by an increasingly desperate regime, rather than prevent it.
One can doubt the sincerity of the regime’s assurance, but it has not shied away from talking tough throughout the revolution, and I believe that it is fully aware that using such weapons against the Syrian people would be suicide in terms of the reaction of its supporters and enemies alike - hence the statement on the terms of their use.
Given its attempts to thwart direct foreign intervention by threatening to use such weapons against external aggressors, it would not make sense for the Assad regime to transfer them to any of its allies. Neither would its allies, particularly Hezbollah, necessarily want to receive them, given the likely reaction by Israel and the US.
For such a serious threat, Obama’s wording is worryingly - and perhaps intentionally - vague. What if unconventional weapons are moved to ensure their safety rather than for offensive purposes? What if such weapons are used against a foreign deployment rather than against Syrians?
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” said Obama. Who exactly are the ‘right people’? Presumably not even the Assad regime. As such, his wording leaves much open to interpretation and misinterpretation, which is very dangerous given the highly combustible situation on the ground.
Obama “was clearly trying to forestall the possibility of an Israeli move into Syria - and the reaction it might provoke,” wrote Mark Landler in the New York Times. I do not see how the U.S. acting in Israel’s stead would be any more palatable to Arabs and Muslims than direct Israeli action.
It also highlights the hypocrisy of the world’s largest possessor of weapons of mass destruction - and the only country to have used nuclear bombs in warfare - acting on behalf of the Middle East’s only nuclear power. Like Syria, Israel has not signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement - signed by all but eight of the world’s countries - that bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
I doubt Syria’s opposition would even want such unconventional weapons to be destroyed or confiscated by the U.S.. They are just as likely as the Assad regime to view such weapons as a strategic counterweight to Israel’s nuclear weapons, or as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Israel over the return of the illegally annexed Golan Heights, a cause dear to all Syrian hearts.
Besides the issue of whether Obama should make good on his threat, is whether he could do so successfully. Intelligence on Syria’s unconventional weapons is patchy and lacks consensus, and one need only look to neighboring Iraq for a stark example of the huge risks and repercussions of acting on flawed intelligence.
“Such a mission would require significant numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ in highly volatile circumstances,” according to BBC defence and diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.
“For the U.S. to attempt to secure the sites in the face of armed resistance by Syrian forces would be extremely demanding, given the number of the sites involved and their considerable size,” says Leonard Spector, executive director of the Washington-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“If the information about dozens of storage sites is right, then there is a distinct possibility that significant quantities of these weapons could go missing, even if the U.S. plans were 95% effective,” writes Urban.
An American deployment would certainly deepen the involvement in Syria of a range of outside powers, as well as widen the conflict further beyond Syria. While there are reports and allegations of jihadist and other foreign fighters going to Syria to bolster the opposition, such a deployment may actually cause them to fight what will be seen as another imperialist threat from a country with a terrible record of interference in the region.
It would certainly divide an already fractious opposition, and enflame Arab public opinion that has thus far been predominantly sympathetic to Syria’s revolution. The result could be a quagmire as deep, intractable and destructive as the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was justified on the basis of the alleged threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Sound familiar?
(Sharif Nashashibi is a London based writer and Arab commentator. This article originally appeared in The Middle East magazine.)