Syria CW Conundrum – Risks, Options, Consequences and Mitigation Measures | Charles Duelfer

Syria CW Conundrum – Risks, Options, Consequences and Mitigation Measures

So far, Syrian chemical munitions seem to have been protected and have not been used by the Syrian government. There were reports of steps being taken to prepare them for use, but it seems Syria has walked back from that direction.

However, the risks posed by Syria’s CW have not diminished. Steps are reportedly being taken by governments to deter their use, contain the consequences if they are used, and potentially destroy them militarily if that appears necessary. In the best of all possible outcomes, there will still be a massive problem in accounting for and disabling the extensive Syrian CW stocks and infrastructure. Below are some comments on each of these.

Deterrence is the highest priority. Governments have clearly made strong statements to Bashir on this point. Perhaps more importantly, messages must (and have been) conveyed to every level of command under Bashir to the level of the guys guarding the storage facilities. If CW is used, they will be held personally accountable.

Much of the work to contain the Syrian CW threat is done at this “personal” level. All military officers who have defected will be debriefed about CW munitions, infrastructure, organization, and staffing. It would be astonishing if extensive efforts to co-opt or recruit Syrian military with access to CW were not underway. The two fundamental questions asked by Washington and other capitals are, “Where is the CW?” and, “What are the intentions of the government?” Policies and actions (such as a military strike) are determined by the evaluations of these two questions. Another action to contribute to deterrence of transferring CW to other actors should be taken. False flag endeavors to elicit the sale or transfer CW to non-Syrian actors must be in place. Such offers would enhance deterrence by causing uncertainty among Syrians concerning any potential buyer and, it would provide information about Syrian CW security.

The New York Times and others have reported that activities are underway in Jordan and perhaps elsewhere to prepare regional governments to counteract CW use and take steps to deal with consequences should it be used. The US is quite aware of the massive problems in dealing with a CW contaminated battlefield. Preparations for the invasion of Iraq included extensive preparation to operate with full chemical protection gear. Fortunately this was unneeded.

Iran is also very familiar with CW consequences on the battlefield. They were the target of a hundred thousand CW munitions during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran suffered tens of thousands of casualties as they attacked Iraqi positions with so-called human wave attacks. For this reason, it may be that Tehran would be more guarded about Syrian CW than commonly thought in the US.

The consequences on civilian populations were horribly evident in Kurdistan when Iraq used CW against its own civilian targets. Short and long term consequences are still being assessed decades later. What is clear, however, is that warning of an attack and simple protective steps can have substantial impact. Gas masks, plastic sheeting and duct tape can greatly improve survival.

Should the White House or other leaders conclude that the risks of Syrian CW use or the risk of Syrian CW falling into other hands was unacceptable, then it may be that the risk of a military strike is judged “the least-bad option.” But it would be an awful option. Any attack would presumably have to attempt to take out all sites at one time. Uncertainty on the sites and facilities would inevitably leave uncertainty concerning how much CW survived and no one could be certain of its security—even the Syrian government.

Moreover, even using munitions designed to incinerate the agent would have unpredictable contamination effects. The problem with these agents is that long term consequences are unknown and exposure areas would be hard to establish. Consequences of an inadvertent demolition of an Iraqi nerve agent storage facility in 1991 are still debated—despite extensive analysis as part of the investigation of Gulf War Syndrome. A key problem is that there may be consequences to exposures at levels lower than are detected by deployed meters.

Finally, in the best possible outcome, there is still a huge task. If the Syrian government passes and a new government accepts its responsibility to account for and eliminate CW weapons and facilities, this still poses a major challenge. The UN weapons inspection team in Iraq, UNSCOM (I was the deputy executive chairman) took years to try to verify the stocks and equipment for Iraq CW. And in the end we were still uncertain. Even Iraq, as it turned out, was uncertain how many munitions it had and what happened to them. UNSCOM supervised an incinerator and hydrolysis plant in Iraq from 1992-1994 to get rid of known CW agent. Some munitions were destroyed by explosives because they were too unstable to move. Some materials were too dangerous to destroy and were permanently entombed in giant bunkers.

UNSCOM also destroyed the production facilities dedicated to CW production. And, while we identified the Iraqi experts who developed the chemical weapons, we could not lobotomize them. The best experts simply found other, more productive things to do. Once released from the Saddam regime, they had better things they could do.

The international community should prepare for all of the above possible outcomes–especially the last one. A timely response by international inspectors to account for and eliminate the risk of Syrian CW would go a long way to reducing instability (military and political) that will inevitably follow the fall of the Bashir regime. We paid a big price for not being ready for success at the end of the Iraq war in 1991. It would be inexcusable to make a similar mistake now.

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One Response to Syria CW Conundrum – Risks, Options, Consequences and Mitigation Measures

  1. S.C. Zidek says:

    Charles, Hope all is well. I was wondering if you’d like to attend Mercyhurst’s biannual conference in Dungarvan, Ireland, July 7-11th. Last conference, we had Mike Hayden speak. This year’s theme is preparing analysts for the 21st century, and I thought that you would make a great panel speaker. We’d cover all food and hotel. It’s also a good networking opportunity. Let me know if you would be interested. Cheers, Steve

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