Recent reports of al Qaida infiltration of the Syrian resistance have strengthened our national reluctance to intervene in the slow-motion train wreck that is the Syrian civil war. After all, we hardly want to be in the position of arming our enemies (that didn’t go so well with the Mexican drug cartels), and should they be successful an al Qaida backed regime is one of the few things that would be worse than the Assad thugocracy that has oppressed Syria for so long.
Furthermore, our options are limited at best. All the high hopes pinned to Kofi Annan’s diplomatic effort to broker a cease-fire have been dashed. Despite international outcry over ongoing atrocities such as the Houla massacre, there now seems to be little we can do beside plead with Vladimir Putin to get his buddy Bashir al-Assad to stop slaughtering his civilian population.
We might be forgiven for wanting to forget this whole sad, sorry mess and turn our eyes away from the carnage on the grounds that it simply is not our problem, and that even if it were we simply cannot fix it. Unfortunately it is rapidly becoming our problem and we have to try to fix it. As this Jerusalem Post editorial details, a grave danger lurks beneath the surface of this conflict that directly threatens our national security: Syria’s WMD. The presence of al Qaida in a country with these weapons further complicates an already enormously complex challenge, and puts the lie once and for all to the contention that Syria has nothing to do with us.
The issue is not so much whether Assad will use the weapons on his own people (although he may well, his father was not squeamish about it). For us it is that Syria’s WMD could fall into the sort of eager hands that snatched Libyan stockpiles in the chaotic days after Qaddafi’s fall, and spirited them to Lebanon. Those shoulder-fired missiles present a worrisome threat to Israel to which the IDF is responding, no doubt thankful for their prudent recent investment in missile defense programs.
Assad has a far more deadly bag of tricks; while the 2007 Israeli strike may have retarded his efforts to develop nuclear capabilities, his successful chemical and biological weapons programs are well-known. What we do not know, however, is where he is storing these weapons. In an increasingly chaotic Syria where we have no presence, we have no way to ensure these stockpiles are safeguarded from whatever bad actor may choose to help himself and spread the grim contagion of these weapons where he will.
A number of alarming scenarios then present themselves. Our immediate concern would have to be Israel should the Iranians, who certainly know where the weapons are, tip off their Hamas or Hezbollah proxies regarding their location. It is even more unpleasant, however, to imagine what might occur if one of the jihadi groups that have joined the Syrian opposition, notably al Qaida, happens upon them.
President Obama and his administration have justified their lethargy towards Syria on the grounds that it is not Libya. In the case of Syria’s WMD we should devoutly hope so. If the international community decides that despite all the very real dangers and challenges of intervention, leaving these weapons to the whims of fate is an intolerable risk, the administration should reverse the lackadaisical “lead from behind” approach that failed to secure Libya’s stockpiles, and take an active and aggressive role in securing Syria’s.
As the Jerusalem Post points out, however, no one should be under the illusion that there are good options here. We have to stop hoping one will magically emerge. This is not a situation that can be resolved with drones or a special operations strike–we face far uglier choices. We might conclude that WMD in the hands of terrorists is worse than Assad and communicate to him that there could be some wriggle room if he reveals their location. We might, despite the inevitable “Bush-lied-about-Iraq” comparisons, make with our allies the public case for the containment of these weapons in an effort to explain what is at stake here. But doing nothing is becoming an increasingly dangerous policy. The presence of al Qaida in an unstable country with WMD has changed the nature of the threat, and as the last fifteen months have demonstrated, ignoring Syria will not make it go away.
Victoria Coates is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.