How the US Should Respond to Assad's Chemical Weapons Threat

Herein lies the two-sided coin: Assad's end may be approaching, but if he believes that he has nothing to lose, he may also perceive the employment of chemical weapons to be his best option.
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International concerns are growing with regard to Assad's chemical weapons. These concerns are warranted. As violence escalates on the periphery of Damascus, the psychological impact of 'encirclement' will increasingly splinter away all but the most entrenched loyalists of the Assad regime. As a corollary, chaos and fear will further pollute the regime's already brutal strategic calculus. Herein lies the two-sided coin. Assad's end may be approaching, but if he believes that he has nothing to lose, he may also perceive the employment of chemical weapons to be his best option. Clearly such a judgment would be exceptionally foolish. But because rationality is not a typical characteristic of dictators facing death, the U.S. must help Assad to think clearly.

There are a number of actions both overt and covert that President Obama should take to address the Syrian regime's chemical threat.

First, Obama should be unmistakably clear about what will happen if Assad uses chemical weapons. The president should explicitly state that such action would 'be met with military intervention' by the United States. It's crucially important that Assad understands Obama is not just paying lip service to this issue. Words regarding vague 'red lines' and 'consequences' simply won't suffice. Instead, a warning of crystal clarity is required. Assad must be made to realize that his chemical weapons don't offer a last role of the dice, but only a method of effective suicide.

Second, in order to give his threats teeth, Obama must ensure that his regional commander, General Mattis, is availed with the primary capabilities that would be needed for a rapid response military operation to secure Syria's chemical weapons. There are indications that this contingency staging is already occurring. Partly in response to the Iranian nuclear crisis, the U.S. Navy currently has two aircraft carriers stationed in the Arabian Sea area. In addition, although media outlets have suggested the decision was taken in response to the recent conflict in Israel-Gaza, I believe that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit's (MEU) deployment extension is focused towards Syria. MEUs are specifically orientated towards quick reaction missions.

Third, the president should order the U.S. intelligence community to prioritize Syrian chemical weapons as a high-priority intelligence collection target. Again it is likely that this is already happening. Regardless, if resources need to be transferred from other non-critical priorities, the President should authorize this re-allocation. North Korea's looming missile test means that the effective balancing of intelligence resources will be a significant near-term challenge.

Fourth, in concert with the EU and other major powers, the U.S. should engage an aggressive diplomatic effort to persuade 'fence-sitting' actors to abandon Assad. While Putin should be the most obvious focus of this approach, where possible the exertion of greater pressure on Hezbollah and Iran should also take precedence. No one has any interest in a chemical weapons incident and without the support of his allies, Assad's demise will arrive more quickly.

Fifth, in addition to the present provision of intelligence and logistics support, the United States should begin transferring arms to Syrian rebels. While this action would risk weapons reaching the hands of anti-U.S. extremists, the imperative of Assad's collapse from power must be the priority. Deploying CIA officers as interlocutors would help manage the dangers involved in weapons transfers. Ultimately however, the simple truth is that the longer this conflict goes on, the more the risks increase and the greater Syria's people suffer.

Sixth, President Obama should frame the challenge of Syrian chemical weapons into a broader deterrence doctrine. While the next few years will offer many U.S. foreign policy opportunities, WMD proliferation will also become an increasingly significant challenge. Faced with this evolving reality, the US must establish that the unprovoked use of WMD's against civilian populations will result in a US Military response. This doctrine would send a powerful deterrent message to state and non-state actors alike. Successful deterrence is clearly preferable to war, but in the absence of a narrative that restrains the dangers posed by their proliferation, the risks of WMDs being used will continue to grow.

If Assad engages in chemical warfare the consequences will be catastrophic. The United States must mount a major effort both to deter such an outcome and to prepare for a decisive reaction should it happen.

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