Obama’s Most Dangerous WMD Precedent in Syria
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Obama’s Most Dangerous WMD Precedent in Syria


The harrowing pictures and videos of likely chemical weapon victims in Syria last week has prompted the Obama administration to reconsider the use of military force against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

As noted before, this would place the U.S. in uncharted territory as it has never attacked a country before because it had used chemical weapons.

This is one reason proponents of the use of force hold their position. By attacking Syria today the U.S. would be deterring other regimes in the future from deciding to use chemical weapons. And by further devaluing chemical weapons, Washington just may convince the last remaining hold outs to sign and implement the UN Chemical Weapons Convention.

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Then again, nations in possession of chemical weapons may draw another conclusion from the U.S. handling of Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Specifically, almost exactly a year ago President Obama called chemical weapons a redline and game changer, implying that their use would prompt the U.S. to take a much more hostile stance to the Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Then, when allegations that Assad’s regime had used small amounts of chemical weapons (which the U.S intelligence community confirmed) surfaced, President Obama ordered only symbolic action be taken in response. If the White House now responds with armed force it would send a message to other regimes that the U.S. does not have a zero tolerance policy towards chemical weapons per se, only towards the large scale use of them. Assuming that a future regime believes it can judge what level of chemical weapons use the U.S. will tolerate, they may decide to use them.

This would no doubt be unfortunate. Still, it’s not the most dangerous weapons of mass destruction precedent the Obama administration has unwittingly set in its handling of the Syria case. That is reserved for how it responded when the first allegations of chemical weapons use surfaced.

When reports first emerged that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, the Obama administration immediately began trying to walk back the president’s earlier comments that this constituted a redline. One way they did this was by insisting on an investigation into who exactly had used them. Did Bashar al-Assad himself order a chemical weapon attack or was it a rogue general on the ground? What about the opposition? Answering this question was vital before deciding how to respond, the administration said.

This made perfect sense in the context of Syria. After all, reports at the time suggested that the Assad regime had begun mixing the chemical weapons and dispersing them ahead of time, giving rogue generals the option of using them without Assad’s approval. Furthermore, the Syrian opposition is made up at least in part by al-Qaeda operatives who we have every reason to believe would use chemical weapons if they believed it would advance their cause.

But the larger precedent this set is likely to far exceed the Syrian case in terms of its importance. What the U.S. was basically saying was that its decision to retaliate against a WMD attack would take into account who had authorized the attack, instead of merely which country’s weapons were used.

This has enormous implications that are best illustrated in the nuclear context. Fortunately for humanity’s sake, and despite concern over a decline in this capability, nuclear forensics has advanced enough to make nuclear attribution a relatively easy affair. That is, God forbid, were a nuclear weapon ever used, the U.S. and its allies would be able to identify which country had made the weapon.

Especially with so many nuclear weapon states out there, nuclear attribution is an essential component of nuclear deterrence. If a country knows the U.S. can identify them as the source of a nuclear weapon, they will know that they will be punished severely if they launch use their arsenal.

Importantly, nuclear attribution also helps ensure that nuclear armed states have adequate command and control measures in place, and don’t share their nuclear arsenal with other countries or sub-state actors. That is because the assumption up to now has been that if a rogue general in say, North Korea, launched a nuclear weapon without Kim Jong-Un’s approval, the U.S. would hold North Korea as a whole accountable for that attack. Similarly, if a terrorist group used a nuclear weapon that was built by Pakistan, Islamabad would also be at least one place the U.S. would retaliate against.

The Obama administration’s handling of the Syria situation could lead some states to doubt this assumption. After all, when chemical weapons were used in Syria, the White House suggested that its response would be dependent on who gave the orders to use the weapons. This implies that in handling WMD attacks, Washington will differentiate between who built the weapons and who used them.

In a perfect world, this would in fact be the preferable option. But attributing fissile material to a country’s nuclear program is a lot more manageable than attributing the decision to use a nuclear weapon to a precise individual. As a result, the U.S. must make absolutely clear that when it comes to nuclear weapons, it holds the right to make zero distinction between who ordered a nuclear attack and who built the weapon that was used.

This will send the proper signal to nuclear weapon states that they must make absolutely sure that they maintain control of their nuclear weapons and have measures in place to prevent their unauthorized launch. This should be obvious but with nuclear weapons we can’t leave anything to chance. This is especially true in light of Syria.

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