Syria Chemical Weapons: 4 Things the U.S. Can Actually Do in Syria

Those seeing the human tragedy unfolding in Syria with a heart full of hell, ready to jump in, stop the bloodshed, and deliver Bashar Al-Assad a knock-out punch might do well to recall a telling anecdote from journalist Dexter Filkins from his days in Iraq.

In 2003, with tensions running high, a car carrying Filkins got stuck in a hole. Luckily, just ahead he spotted a "highway patrol," its six members wearing gleaming white shirts and leaning against a car parked beneath an underpass.

Filkins approached them for help. "Are you an American?" he quoted one officer as asking. "We’re looking to kill an American." Another officer chimed in: "I hate the Americans. It's an occupation." Weren’t they being paid by American dollars? "No, it's our oil that is paying," said an officer. In his splendid book The Forever War, Filkins related similar incidents. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West, who was also a Marine, reported similar skepticism among Afghans towards Americans in his book The Wrong War.

There's a lesson for those who advocate aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria. You can bet that those who thank us today for saving their lives will blame us tomorrow for anything that goes wrong. They'll even resent needing U.S. assistance. And the price we've paid for assisting in the region is stiff. Department of Defense data reports  4,409 U.S. troops have died and were 31,928 wounded, not to mention total 0spending well over a trillion dollars. Today's thanks? Fearing a Sunni-dominated Syria, Iraq's Shi'a Prime Minister Nouri al-Alaki is pulling for Assad and allows Iran to ship arms to him.

The Syrian civil war is messy and likely to worsen. The 70,000 dead are a humanitarian tragedy. But in deciding what to do, the U.S. needs to take a cold, hard look at its strategic interests, and not focus merely on understandable outrage at the slaughter and murder that grind innocent Syrian lives.

Two dangers affect our strategic interests. First, Syria’s formidable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (or, as the military terms them, CBRN Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear). Second, there is an increasing threat that the civil war will widen into a regional conflict. The 2 million refugees add a third, humanitarian concern that affects our interests as they could prove to destabilize the governments of Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

Indeed, for those owning crystal balls, here's a forecast: Jordan is next up for civil chaos.

Yes, who controls Syria in a post-Assad era, presuming he falls, matters. But we'd be wise to think hard about who replaces him. Violent Islamic extremists have achieved a central role among the rebels at the expense of early "moderates" who support democratic pluralism and religious tolerance. Picking exactly who to support now is extraordinarily difficult and we better look closely at who benefits before we provide lethal aid, especially anti-air or anti-missile weapons.

What are our realistic options?

1. Keep WMD out of the wrong hands:

America can work with regional allies to step up surveillance and monitoring of Syria's WMD arsenal. If chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, the Boston Marathon tragedy could look like a picnic. Every nation is at risk to this threat, including Assad's ally Russia. Military professionals need to work out the right military strategy and tactics to deal with this concern.

Two strategic points stand out. We must forge and be ready to execute a plan to secure or destroy that arsenal should extremists seize or get to the verge of seizing these arsenals, or if weapons are transferred to Hezbollah. Ideally, regional allies, not the U.S. should take the lead, with the U.S. providing intelligence and logistical support.

That's easier said than done. It's easy to talk about what allies must do, but it's naïve to overestimate their capabilities or to think that a plan to secure or destroy WMDs can be made or executed without significant direct U.S. engagement.

2. Work to contain the conflict:

Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah has declared that Hezbollah would intervene in Syria to protect Assad. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has correctly denounced Nasrallah as putting Lebanon's survival on the line to serve Syrian and Iranian agendas.

The SecDev Group has detected hacking by the Syrian regime into Jordanian websites. That’s no surprise. The Syrian civil war is the world's first cyber war, as both sides employ cyber tools to gather information and intelligence, gain credibility, discredit other parties, for command & control purposes, and to maneuver.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confronts multiple problems. His diplomacy is misfiring. He's avoidably become perceived as supporting Sunnis over Shiites. Critics suspect that an extremist Sunni group that Ankara directly or indirectly supports abducted Pavlos Yazici, the Greek Orthodox archbishop for Alleppo and Iskenderun, and Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Archbishop for Alleppa. The International Crisis Group reports that the crisis has blocked Turkey's main trade routes to the Arab world. Many perceive Erdogan's policy in Syria as pro-Sunni, not pro-democracy, fueling anti-Turkish sentiments.

Meanwhile, refugees are flooding into Turkey. It needs help. Here the U.S. could step up its support.

What to do? First, try and persuade others, including Russia, to help keep the conflict from spreading, but recognize that many parties may resist U.S. pressure. Second, should that fail, the U.S. should pressure Vladimir Putin by placing responsibility for Assad's actions on Russia for standing by as violence persists. That option must be carefully considered. Is compassion for Syrians worth prejudicing U.S.-Russian relations? Still, a civil war that erupts into a regional conflict will de-stabilize the region, with unpredictable, dangerous consequences. 

3. Be wary of claims that Assad has used chemical weapons:

Free Syrian Army chief of staff General Salim Idris wrote President Barack Obama asserting that Assad has used chemical weapons three times. Obama is taking heat for wanting more proof. But his caution is prudent. Assad opponents want to draw the U.S. into intervention. Objective observers are skeptical. Should Assad employ such weapons, expect that he'll use them for real tactical gain, not as a test.

Obama has made use of WMDs a red line. Assad knows that employing them verifiably will force Obama's hand.  

Still, another lesson is to be wary about what you promise or threaten. Do not draw lines in the sand lightly, especially red ones. Once drawn, one has to take serious action if they are crossed. There comes a point when it is not credible to deny the evidence that does exist, even if it's incomplete. We may already be at that stage. This poses a significant challenge for the President, whose hand may be forced.

4. Be wary of demands that the U.S. create no-fly zones:

Syrian air defenses, composed largely of Soviet-era weaponry, may not be cutting edge but they remain dangerous. The benefits of success seem evident. But if somebody's going to take on this job, let's place that burden on regional allies, not ourselves. History teaches a lesson applicable here: be wary as well of allowing people to believe that anything is possible. There are lots of things we can't do, even if we wanted to. This is real life, not a film.

Syria presents a fundamental issue for U.S. policy: how do we balance our idealism that rejects use of WMDs or political repression with pragmatic realism which recognizes there are some things we cannot do and others that we should not do as the costs outweigh the benefits?If action that could kill any human being is taken, should the target be Assad himself or his key advisers? Why value their lives over that of other Syrians? U.S. policy eschews such action, but that doesn't hold true for other players, and it's a discussion that merits exploration.

A human tragedy outrages all of us. Ill-judged or precipitous action that injudiciously inserts us into another Middle Eastern morass will compound, not overcome, that tragedy.