A ruinous road to Damascus: Can the US avoid it?

By Charles P. Blair | September 27, 2013

The United States and Russia met in Geneva in mid-September and produced a plan to resolve the chemical aspects of the Syrian crisis, the so-called “Lavrov-Kerry Agreement,” named for the Russian foreign minister and US secretary of state, respectively. Under the agreement, Syria is to disclose the disposition of its chemical weapons stockpile, the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is to launch a mission to quickly destroy that stockpile, and the United Nations Security Council is to adopt a resolution reinforcing that regime. 

Regardless of how Lavrov-Kerry fares, the Obama administration faces a high-stakes dilemma.

If the agreement is successful, the Syrian civil war still threatens to metastasize—further destabilizing the entire region and, due to the West’s dependence on oil from the Middle East, threatening the world economy. In short, even without a Syrian chemical arsenal, and apart from the normal winter ebb in fighting, the civil war shows no signs of slowing down.

But failure to rid Syria of the stockpile could result in additional chemical weapons use by the Assad regime and hastens the day when extremists acquire these arms, too. If Syria does not abide by the agreement, the United States would likely resort to air strikes, amid strong calls for a redoubling of efforts to quickly arm opposition forces with more weaponry. Both actions are inherently risky. Indeed, significant sections of Syria could fall under the rule of violent Islamists armed with chemical weapons. As an authority on terrorism at the RAND Corporation, Michael Jenkins, recently wrote me, “the Syrian civil war has significantly raised the risk that its chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists, creating a greater international crisis than the one we think we have just solved.”

But foregoing direct US military action while arming the opposition runs many of the same risks; if the United States unintentionally backs the wrong opposition forces, the weapons it supplies could end up in the hands of violent Islamists. Opposition forces are increasingly composed of radicalized Islamists—the most effective fighting units in the struggle. These “Nationalist Salafis” (as described by strategic foresight and warning pioneer Hélène Lavoix) and, to a greater degree, Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups may well be the wave of Syria’s future.   

Although the Syrian situation is confused, one thing is clear: The deadly civil war will likely rage on — possibly engulfing the broader region. The United States’ best chance of avoiding the worst Syrian outcome is through successful implementation of the agreement. Even so, given the real possibility that radicalized Islamists could wind up in possession of Syrian chemical weapons, the United States should be preparing for military action that includes the boots on the ground the Obama administration has been so intent on avoiding.

Ambitious goals. According to a senior US official, the United States and Russia are in near-total agreement about the size and composition of the Syrian chemical stockpile. They believe it totals roughly 1,000 metric tons, just under one-third of which consists of mustard agent. The remaining 700 metric tons consists primarily of nerve agent precursors, very little of which is believed to be weaponized.

On Saturday, September 21, Syria delivered a “comprehensive listing” that outlined its chemical weapons arsenal and infrastructure. Assuming continued full cooperation from the Assad regime, the main challenges remaining are two-fold: First, the UN Security Council must pass a resolution that properly empowers the OPCW. Such a resolution would ideally invoke Chapter VII of the UN charter to override, under international law, any rights Syria has as a state party seeking to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The United States and Russia reached agreement on a draft resolution, but the current draft foregoes invoking Chapter VII.  Once the resolution is adopted (which could come within a day or days), the UN and OPCW must then determine where to destroy or transport the agents and precursors, garner the level of resources required to support the mission, and deal with the unknowns of working in a civil war environment. 

The agreement necessarily possesses an extremely ambitious timeframe. Its goals include finishing primary on-site inspections of declared Syrian chemical sites and destroying all its precursors by November. The target date for final the destruction of Syria’s remaining chemical warfare agents is June 2014.

Extraordinary dangers. As the OPCW prepares to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons (or not, should the agreement fail), the actions of extremist opposition forces will be of immense significance. Of the four broad opposition group types, Nationalist Salafis and jihadists pose the greatest threat vis-à-vis use of chemical weapons in a terrorist event. Both group types have displayed high operational capabilities in Syria and are significant fighting forces. Moreover, jihadists have the motivation to use chemical weapons. With motivation and capability all that remains is opportunity.

Actually, however, so many variables are in motion that it is very difficult to anticipate the future of the Syrian crisis. Working with the RAND Corporation’s Jenkins, I have identified four possible outcomes that seem, at this stage in the crisis, more likely than others.

  • The Assad regime retains some chemical weapons capability. “We must anticipate that Assad will attempt to retain some chemical weapons,” Jenkins warns. “At the very least, [the Assad regime] will have the knowledge and ability to make new ones unless the country is stripped of its chemical industry and scientific community.” In short, Jenkins implies, nothing short of highly invasive action (e.g., US boots on the ground) can eliminate the Syrian chemical threat.
  •  Present trends continue. With or without chemical weapons and respective international responses, the Assad regime survives and maintains control over key cities. Jenkins notes that this is “essentially a continuation of the current situation, which can go on for years.” In this scenario, Syria could split into at least three zones: Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia.
  •  The agreement fails: A Somalia scenario. The Assad regime fails to fully cooperate and Assad dies or leaves Syria. “But his Alawite supporters defend their enclaves in Western Syria,” Jenkins theorizes, “while Sunni rebels, mainly loyal to Al Qaeda and local warlords, dominate the rest of the country.” Huge numbers of people could die in the ensuing ethnic cleansing. Such an outcome, already manifest on a small scale, could easily destabilize the surrounding region. 
  • Regional catastrophe—global disaster. With or without chemical weapons and respective international responses, Jenkins and others recognize that “Syria's civil war could evolve into a regional sectarian conflict with open warfare, and terrorist campaigns spreading to Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf kingdoms, and Iran.” Oil supply disruption could easily affect global financial markets, leading to economic disaster.

Regardless of how the Syrian dilemma develops, it is abundantly clear that Syria, the region, and the world are in danger. Each scenario above guarantees some significant degree of additional bloodshed. The world must accept that Syria’s unprecedented violence will continue and possibly spread throughout the region. If the Lavrov-Kerry agreement finds success, direct US military action is unlikely in the near-term. However, the United States must prepare for direct involvement that would include the deployment of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of US troops. Many justifiably cringe at the very idea, but the ramifications of a severe oil supply disruption and the ensuing effect on the world financial system make US involvement not just possible, but if the Lavrov-Kerry agreement does not succeed, likely.

Even with opposition forces active in Syria, airpower alone is unlikely to topple the Assad regime, and a significant missile and bombing attack could create a power vacuum that empowers violent Islamists. Arming opposition forces—clearly identifying strong, reasonably secular, and reliable allies who can make it all the way to Victory Day—is a task of almost unfathomable difficulty. The threat that violent Islamists will acquire chemical warfare agents looms, and use of those agents in a terrorist attack on Western targets could easily weaken the globe’s financial markets and greatly disrupt its highly interconnected economies. The United States has little choice but to prepare for direct military involvement that goes beyond airpower.

If ever there was an obvious time for US leaders to support one another with clear and unhurried thinking, it is now. Only with a near-perfect plan—the base of which is the Lavrov-Kerry Agreement and strong bipartisan support—can the United States succeed in ridding Syria of chemical weapons and ensuring that the Syrian civil war remains largely confined to Syria. 

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