President Obama needs to figure out what, exactly, he wants out of his Syria policy. The White House has been all over the map with their messaging, from Secretary of State John Kerry promising strikes to Obama declaring that “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks” in a televised speech Tuesday night. “With modest effort and risk,” he said, we can stop children from being gassed to death.”
Stopping the use and spread of chemicals is a vitally important goal, arguably the most morally unambiguous argument for intervening in Syria’s conflict. It is clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons last month has crystallized in the White House a desire to “do something” about the conflict. Yet how that “something” can be achieved with the options Obama has laid on the table remains frustratingly vague.
In Obama’s first plan, expressed last week, Syria would have had its capacity to use chemical weapons “degraded” through air strikes. The nature of those strikes was never clear. Kerry called them “unbelievably small,” earlier in the week, though on Tuesday Obama said conclusively that he “will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.” Either way, those strikes could not have materially reduced the threat of chemical weapons inside Syria. If anything, direct strikes on Assad’s chemical stockpiles will disperse them into the air, potentially killing even more civilians (or, a strike intense enough to destroy chemical agents would have to be so powerful that, again, civilians almost certainly would be killed). The hope, in this case, was that strikes would have punished Assad such that he would be loathe to use them again.
But Tuesday night, Obama offered another possibility: a joint-Russian plan that would require Assad to voluntarily relinquish his chemical weapons and submit them to the international community for destruction. It holds deep appeal for everyone: it upholds the norm that chemical weapons use are unacceptable regardless of circumstance, it is non-violent (despite the implicit threat of force), and it involves Russia in a constructive way. Yet this Russia plan has a pretty steep downside: one way or another it will almost certainly require putting troops into Syria. And its unclear how Assad willingly ends up facing any punishment for using chemical weapons.
Dismantling and destroying chemical weapons is a laborious, slow, and expensive process under the best circumstances. Chemical weapons stockpiles must be either incinerated or neutralized with reactive agents, and the regime will almost certainly go out of its way to avoid destroying any delivery mechanisms — rockets, missiles, etc. — because they can be used as legitimate conventional weapons.
In the midst of a raging civil war, dismantling chemical weapons is practically impossible. “We’re talking boots on the ground,” a former United Nations weapons inspector from Iraq bluntly told the New York Times. “We’re not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.”
Secondly, the weapons must be either secured at the dozens of sites Assad now has, or they must be trucked to central locations for disposal — again, through a raging civil war. The only feasible way to keep those weapons out of the hands of militants or rogue elements within the Assad regime is — again — through troops.
Sending troops to Syria is fraught with political, diplomatic, and tactical peril. And literally every scenario for securing and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons would require tens of thousands of troops. It is clear Russia would not support any UN sanction for deploying U.S. troops, and it is likely they would balk at a UN resolution authorizing an international force. That would leave Russian troops as the only option for securing these weapons. Is President Obama ready to sell that plan to the American people?
There aren’t many other ways Assad’s weapons could be secured. Iran is widely reported to have sent troops to bolster Assad’s forces (along with Hezbollah). There are even unconfirmed rumors that some Iranian troops are guarding some of Assad’s chemical stockpiles. Yet the consensus among experts it that troops on the ground are necessary to have any meaningful disarmament. It seems destined for a fatal misunderstanding.
That leaves one scenario in which ground troops will not be needed to secure and destroy Assad’s chemical stockpiles: a ceasefire. A halt to the fighting between the various rebel factions and the various pro-Assad militias and army would give the international community the time and space to identify and dismantle the chemical stockpiles safely.
Unfortunately a ceasefire is even less likely than deploying thousands of troops. Even if Russia could get the Assad regime to agree to one — it never has — the many pro-government militias that have sprung up near cities like Aleppo probably wouldn’t obey it anyhow. Ceasefires have a bad history in Syria of falling apart in a bloody mess.
Lastly, there is more than one side to the Syrian war. The opposition gets a vote, such as it were, and at least one major group has already publicly opposed the current Russian plan.
That leaves troops — tens of thousands of troops — as the only remotely feasible way to carry out the dismantling plan for Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet, inexplicably, the need for troops to carry it out has gone missing from all the voluminous discussions about it. The American people need to be aware of what they’re signing up for.