US twice shy in reacting to Syria’s WMD?

A damaged vehicle is seen after shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's district of Bustan Al Qasr August 7, 2012.
A damaged vehicle is seen after shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's district of Bustan Al Qasr August 7, 2012.
REUTERS/Obeida Al Naimi

In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld assured the nation that we knew where Iraq was hiding its Weapons of Mass Destruction. By October 2004, the CIA reported that in fact, at the time of the American invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD.  While you may think the CIA’s ‘Duelfer Report’ would definitively clear up the matter once and for all, a recent Dartmouth University poll revealed that a whopping 63% of Republican respondents still maintain that Iraq had WMD. As the conflicts that have arisen from the Arab Spring continue to restructure our relationship to the region, the credibility squandered by the Bush administration complicate President Obama’s consideration of military options.

So, when U.S. officials recently confirmed that Syria relocated its chemical weapons stockpile in the midst of a rapidly degrading conflict which has already claimed nearly 20,000 lives, the specter of WMD once again threatened to take over the narrative.  It’s not news that Damascus possesses a WMD stockpile; in fact, it is believed to be quite vast. By refusing to sign the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, Bashar al-Assad signaled that he never promised to fight fairly. The question of WMD comes in the midst of heightened assaults against the Assad regime; the last weeks saw the Syrian Defense Minister, along with Assad’s own brother-in-law, killed in a suicide attack within Damascus. This week, the Prime Minister has defected with his family.

NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent, Richard Engel, contends that Syria’s WMD should always have been part of the discussion, “We’ve been choosing to ignore it because it’s complicated, and it’s an election year. But the Assad regime is facing what could be imminent destruction, and this is the time when using chemical weapons becomes a real possibility.” 

Indeed, military intervention in a foreign conflict this close to a presidential election is not an attractive option for Obama, but is WMD as a justification for intervention a nonstarter in any case? Can the American public ever get behind removing the threat of WMD as a reason for war again? Just this week, the Syrian regime clarified that it has no plans to use chemical weapons against its own population, but would use them against “external aggression;” a declaration that seems neither trustworthy nor comforting.

There’s also the possibility that WMD, and the way they affect the international response to the crisis in Syria, could have affect on nuclear ambitions in the region. As Wired’s Kris Alexander sums up:

“Regimes seek WMDs for multiple reasons, but the common thread is a deterrent against outside attack. Syrian WMDs create a paradox for the international community looking to stem the spread of WMDs. If the West stays out of Syria, this reinforces the perceived deterrent value of WMDs.  This will further fuel the nuclear ambitions of Syria’s ally Iran. However, the reverse scenario is also true. If the West intervenes against Assad and he is forced out of power, this could make nuclear weapons more attractive as well. If chem/bio weapons didn’t deter aggression, then nuclear weapons might.”

On the question of whether the U.S. may be hesitant to react to a WMD situation in Syria because of some collective embarrassment over Iraq, Engel disagrees, “If the U.S. thought that Syria might use its WMDs, we wouldn’t hesitate to act. You don’t see the U.S. drumming this up because it doesn’t want to get unilaterally involved, we’d rather have the uprising continue, or a third party like Turkey intervene.”  Pentagon Press Secretary George Little recently stated, “The Syrian regime is already responsible for unacceptable levels of deplorable violence against the Syrian population, and they should not think one iota about using chemical weapons.”

As a country, we’ve been here before; the difference with Syria is that the Assad regime is transparent regarding its possession of WMD as observers struggle to interpret his signals

As the U.S. continues to define the conditions, or lack thereof, of its involvement in Syria, it will be important to consider the American public’s reaction to Syria’s WMD, and whether or not we can separate the Syrian conflict from our own internal one.

US twice shy in reacting to Syria's WMD?