Sarin Over Aleppo

In this Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during fighting with the Syrian Army in Azaz, Syr
In this Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during fighting with the Syrian Army in Azaz, Syria. (AP Photo/Virginie Nguyen Huang)

Revelations that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed last month that Washington would refrain from intervening in Syria if Russia secured Bashar Assad's chemical weapons demonstrated how compromise unavoidably attends American efforts to spread humanitarian ideals globally. Syria's geopolitical centrality and sectarian complexity work against U.S.-led action to topple another Middle East dictator. Clinton and President Barack Obama, who last August called using such weapons as sarin gas a "red line," are right to forfeit the improbable to achieve the possible: bolstering a taboo against chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction more generally. Their clear-eyed and measured strategy is a model of understanding how power begets principle in today's world.

Chemical weapons are especially poignant in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein employed mustard gas and nerve agents against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq war and, in 1988, against the Kurdish town of Halabja, where as many as 5,000 died with many more injured. Though willful misinformation led American officials to justify the 2003 Iraq War with nuclear chimeras, even war critics shed few tears when Hussein was captured, tried, and executed for his tyrannical rule and murderous poisoning of the Kurds.

Since ancient times, poisons and other deathly elixirs have troubled rulers and warriors. In a decidedly un-Homeric act, the Greeks mixed sulfur and pitch resin to asphyxiate Trojan troops and Greeks and Romans strove thereafter to forbid the "dishonorable" practice. In 1675, a Franco-German treaty outlawed the use of poison bullets and the 1874 Brussels Declaration and 1899 Hague Peace Conference saw efforts to ban "poison and poisonous weapons."

A taboo against chemical weapons truly crystallized in the 20th century. Hussein's use of mustard gas was so troubling because Iran and Iraq were parties to the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, which was brokered in 1925 after an array of chemical cocktails killed 90,000 and wounded 1.2 million in World War I.

Perversely, the Cold War witnessed a growth spurt in both chemical arms and legal prohibitions against them. Alongside the nuclear arms race, the United States and Soviet Union developed prodigious chemical and biological capabilities only to illegalize them with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1996 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which finally materialized after the Iran-Iraq War. Today, Syria remains one of the few holdouts from the CWC (the U.S. and Russia are meanwhile in the midst of destroying their own stockpiles).

The United Nations reports more than 60,000 dead as a result of Assad's brutish crackdown. Since the uprising began in March 2011, Assad's forces have regularly upped the ante, deploying tanks, mortars, artillery and finally rockets against the rebels as the regime teeters. It is therefore chilling that numerous reports last month had Syrian troops readying sarin, VX, and mustard gases for use in the field. With his regime imperiled and international condemnation ineffectual, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Assad unlocked his chemical vaults.

Even if Assad falls, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warns 75,000 American troops might be needed to secure an arsenal "100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya." Enlisting Russia's support -- Syria's most important ally and a country with considerable expertise in neutralizing chemical stockpiles -- could stem the bloodletting and help secure the weapons once it abates.

This was not an ideal solution. Surely, the prerogatives of power do not extend to attacking one's own people. Obama, together with many international leaders, has censured the Assad regime, calling for his resignation, a negotiated peace, and the formation of a legitimate government. After 21 months, however, it seems unlikely the U.S. has the disposable resources or the popular will to pitch itself onto another Middle East battleground.

Fears of chemical weapons, however, do invoke a larger U.S. commitment to limit the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction. Significantly, when Obama warned on Dec. 4 that if Assad made "the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and [he] will be held accountable," it was in front of a panel of nuclear proliferation experts at a meeting of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, a relic of a time when such collaboration enjoyed wide bipartisan support.

The struggle to control weapons of mass destruction is key to global security. The deal, though imperfect, speaks to how inextricably power and principle are bound together in world affairs. Russian President Vladimir Putin might well stomach the travesty of a Syrian Halabja if the specter of U.S. action did not loom. The chemical monster appears to be back in its cage. For the U.S. to promote its cherished values, it must continue to serve as, in Obama's formulation before the Libyan action, "an anchor of global security." Though we cannot afford to intervene wherever and whenever we choose, our military strength nonetheless allows us to foster a world where dictators must think twice before poisoning their own people.

Jonathan R. Hunt is a Predoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, an Eisenhower Roberts Graduate Fellow of the Eisenhower Institute, and a doctoral candidate in international history at the University of Texas at Austin.