Is the Syrian Conflict Turning Into Another Cuban Missile Crisis?

Weapons of mass destruction have been a consistent feature of the Syrian civil war and the most recent chemical attack on August 21 set a precedent by killing over 1,400 people. Intelligence information about the perpetrators is presented to push known agendas: the French and Americans argue it was Assad's forces who pulled the trigger, while the Russian evaluation of the available evidence is saying that the substances and fragments recovered do not correspond to Syrian army munitions.  

The seeming lack of control and accountability on who has and uses chemical weapons spells out one immeasurable risk: the use of WMDs against one of Syria's neighbors, either by Assad's forces or one of the many groups fighting the army. Specifically, WMDs could very well create a security dilemma like the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Mideast, but much more volatile in character.

Today, Congress reconvenes for the new political season, with Syria at the top of the agenda. A crucial vote this week will determine whether the president's proposal to strike Syria will happen: preliminary surveys suggest that support is lackluster, a larger group opposes any military action, but the largest share is undecided. If Congress acts in line with popular opinion, then avoiding entanglement in Syria best serves American interests. If that is the case, Obama may suffer politically as UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose bid for supporting the Syrian opposition militarily was cut short in Parliament.

Unlike the Cuban crisis, the most important variable now is dynamic hot conflict and the time to make choices is dramatically less. Moreover, the use of chemical weapons could be repeated against other neighboring states. Syria would have an interest in doing so, as it would regionalize the war and force the U.S. into a long-term commitment. An Islamist sub-state group fighting the regime might do so as a part of its ideological goals to limit Shi'a or Israeli influence, or conversely to paint the regime as an aggressor. For instance, a chemical attack on Israel via an improvised rocket is not a stretch of the imagination — that would leave Tel Aviv with no choice, but to reply and potentially take a side in the war. An attack against Turkey, most likely from an Islamist group fighting Syrian Kurds near the Turkish border in what is de facto a civil war within a civil war, would constitute an Article 5 response by NATO. In a word, the war is increasingly difficult to contain without spilling over regionally.

Iran remains open to negotiations on the nuclear issue, but the use of WMDs is very nearly a justifying reason for Teheran to militarize nuclear power. The regionalization of the conflict, with American participation, could very well provide the pretext arguments. From that point, the escalation of tensions would happen very quickly, because Saudi Arabia has also declared that it will go nuclear if Iran does so. In this way, the Syrian civil war can very quickly turn the Middle East into a regional Cold War battleground, but in the context of dangerous multipolarity.

The proposed new version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, amid an active war, will produce an urgent need for diplomacy. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed and ratified by most states in the world, still includes some important outliers: India, Pakistan and Israel. North Korea's withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 also poses a worrisome precedent, because the action could be repeated by any other Mideast states seeking to use and potentially militarize nuclear power.

Seemingly, destabilizing Syria further has regional and global implications that would not hold benefits for anyone and costs for everyone. The civil war has turned into an outright sectarian conflict with the shadow of WMDs looming over it. The only visible benefit might be the temporary enhancement of the Gulf monarchies' strategic influence, but in the long term they will also incur higher costs for security if the entire Mideast becomes a MAD zone. A potential regional war would draw them and internationalize sectarian warfare. Potentially, WMDs will be used in active combat and it is precisely that risk of the Syrian civil war that is so hard to predict and model.

A political solution to the civil war is not likely at this stage, as there is no unified opposition leadership and it is questionable if the states supporting the opposition will let up their support for the sake of diplomacy. However, curbing the potential for WMD use is vital for preventing the full destabilization of the Mideast and it is crucial for leaving an option for the political solution that will inevitably have to end the Syrian civil war.