Beware of Mission Creep in Syria

September 17, 2013

The United States may have avoided a small war in Syria.  However, as it attempts to bring Syria’s chemical arsenal under control with Russia, it should avoid falling prey to mission creep and thereby stumbling into a larger one.

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that after the Syrian regime used nerve agents less than a month ago, killing numerous women and children in the process, President Obama started putting together a coalition to bomb Syria in order to reestablish an international standard against the use of chemical weapons.  The bombing campaign was to be limited and involve no American “boots on the ground.”  It was to be pure signal sending.

A few weeks later, Syria’s patron, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, put forward a proposal to forestall the threatened American bombing campaign.  He proposed putting Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control so that it could be destroyed.  In response, Syria said that it will sign the Chemical Weapons Convention signaling its willingness to turn over its chemical weapons to international control.  Now, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have met in Geneva and announced the framework of a plan for doing just that.

President Putin has certainly upstaged Obama and his sanctimonious op-ed in the New York Times was unhelpful and unseemly.  Nevertheless, Obama should be grateful to his Russian counterpart for getting him out his self-made trap.  If Obama is clever, he should be able to portray Putin and himself as the good cop/bad cop pair who worked together to solve the problem.

However, potential trouble is lurking.  Consider the three main components of the framework intended to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons.

First, Syria is to deliver “a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities” within the week.

Second, the U.S. and Russia,

Further determined that the most effective control of these weapons may be achieved by removal of the largest amounts of weapons feasible…and their destruction outside of Syria, if possible….In addition to chemical weapons, stocks of chemical weapons agents, their precursors, specialized CW equipment, and CW munitions themselves, the elimination process must include the facilities for the development and production of these weapons.

Finally, the Syrians must give international inspectors access to “any and all sites in Syria.”

For the first time, Syria really does start to seem like Iraq to me.  These requirements are similar to those that Iraq was under during the 1990s right up until the eve of war in 2003.  How well did that work out?

Where are the potential problems here? First, Syria’s regime may genuinely not be able to fully and accurately provide the data requested of it.  We’ve seen this before.  Members of the Saddam regime were not always certain about what had happened to every bit of their chemical arsenal.  Even the United States, when it signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the USSR didn’t have a full understanding of where all of its accountable items of equipment were.  Second, because intelligence is an inexact business, the United States is bound to disagree with at least some of the Syrian declaration and it may also disagree with Russian estimates.  True, Kerry and Lavrov say that “the United States and the Russian Federation have reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons involved”, but carefully parsed, that language does not claim that they agree on the locations.  (Nor does it say that the assessment is a point estimate.  It could be a range of numbers.)  Third, we have to trust that no disputes are going to arise over inspecting sensitive sites like, say, Assad’s presidential palaces, as happened in Iraq.  Saddam drew the line there and Assad might as well.  Fourth, it is far from clear how all these inspections are to take place and how these extremely dangerous chemicals are to be moved out of Syria in the middle of a war.

The potential disagreements are the first point where the danger arises.  It is all too easy to imagine that a dispute will erupt over the absence of some facility on the Syrian declaration that the United States thinks holds or may hold chemical weapons. Syria may also refuse access to some particular site, which could lead such a dispute to escalate into threats of air strikes or other military operations.

It is also worth pondering how the inspectors and the poor souls assigned to transport the chemical weapons out of Syria will be safeguarded.  Again, it seems very likely that the guarantors of their security will be, at least in part, the U.S. military.

When these sorts of problems arise, it will be critical for the Obama administration to remember what it came to do: uphold the norm of non-use of chemical weapons.  If the U.S.-Russia agreement is even partially implemented, it will be a remarkable victory that will certainly contribute to upholding this norm.  Getting any sizeable portion of those weapons under international control will be an accomplishment far beyond anything that the Administration could have expected from the President’s proposed air strikes.  The United States should not get itself dragged into a war in pursuit of goals it never even dreamed of, or thought necessary, a month ago.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.