Syria and chemical weapons: time to intervene?

Just the excuse we needed. Thanks, Bashar.

Dictators are murderers. Some of them, like Robert Mugabe or Aleksandr Lukashenko, are garden-variety thugs, racists, or sociopaths; some, like Mao Zedong or Kim Jong Il, are insane perverts; and some of them, like former Soviet leaders Brezhnev and Khrushchev,  are just bureaucrats whose souls are not even well-formed enough to qualify as “evil.” Some, too, are purely monsters, like Hitler or Pol Pot; those rarely come around, thank God.

And sometimes, if we’re lucky, they’re also idiots.

Bashar Assad, the Baby Doc Duvalier of the Desert, has managed to get something close to 17,000 people killed in a civil war against his regime. That, in itself, should be enough for the international community to intervene. But the Russians and the Chinese — those unfailing beacons of moral virtue in our dark, dark universe — have assiduously defended  Baby Bashar’s rights to kill and maim to stay in power.

Yeah, right backatcha, babe. Say hi to Slobodan and Saddam for us when you get to Hell.

Moscow and Beijing probably would have been able to play out that game a lot longer were it not for the fact that their boy Assad is, in fact, an idiot.

The Syrian regime’s threat to use chemical weapons has pushed this crisis into a new arena. Up until now, the Russians and the Chinese have been clinging to the tattered, musty shreds of the Westphalian order, defending the now outdated idea that regimes must be left alone to murder and strangle their own people, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, in peace and quiet.

When regimes go bad.

This is a popular line of argument for authoritarian regimes, since it’s instant inoculation against any kind of outside interference. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the saying goes, and while that makes for great cover for a weekend of hookers, booze, and inappropriate tattoos, it no longer suffices for regimes intent on massacring their own people.

Still, Assad was getting away with it. But the threat to use chemicals has now eliminated any pretense that the Syrian war is a purely internal matter. (The Russians have “chided” them for this threat. Golf clap.) The Syrians, apparently, are actually moving their weapons, according to The Atlantic Wire, where Adam Martin, with admirable understatement, has called it “a bad idea.”

If the threat to use weapons of mass destruction (or in this case, more accurately, weapons of mass death) doesn’t qualify as a threatened crime against humanity — or at the least, a nothing-but-net Chapter VII Security Council issue — nothing does.

The Security Council. They left a wakeup call for the 21st century, but the Russians keep hitting the “snooze” button.

Assad is not exactly a Nobel Prize winning genius. Coincidentally, however, the American President does have one of those, and Assad has stupidly handed him and NATO exactly the threat they need to start eroding the Syrian armed forces and the Damascus regime, layer by layer. This no longer need be debated either as a humanitarian intervention (which it would be), or support for democracy (which it may or may not be, in the long run).

Instead, the United States should now lead an international effort to defang a rogue regime that has openly threatened the use of WMD against its neighbors. Maybe Iraq’s WMD weren’t the “slam-dunk” that George Tenet ineptly claimed, but this time, in Syria, there can be no mistake: the weapons exist and their use has been threatened.

When the dictator of a brutal regime says he will use chems, the least we can do is pay him the courtesy of taking him seriously — and then taking him out of power.

Going, going….

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11 comments

  1. The optimistic take would be; it certainly has the potential to put his regime down, if they did back away from the initial statement, maybe realizing the gravity of the situation as to Israel looking at them and saying in effect, “Any hint of a SCUD with Sarin and things happen on a time urgent basis.” I don’t know how easy that is to de-escalate, if distributing auto-injectors is a form of one version of deterrence, if it would scare people a lot too; deterrence by denial.
    At this point, Russia and China really ought to see that some graceful endgame is actually in their interest, and, on the brighter side of things, any sane person in Iran can see that WMD actually can undermine a regime.
    That might be way, way too optimistic, as they stepped dangerously close to over the line there. Securing Syrian WMD is a legitimate concern for everyone, and again points out that WMD don’t necessarily make you safe, as political instability could induce preemtion in a way that has greater risks than not having WMD.

  2. Tom: I think Damascus has really done it with the chem threat, which is absurd – and which is why they are “backpedaling furiously,”* since even Putin is really upset at them over it. It’s already a pretty dead issue therefore. Plus the FSA is saying they can handle it, and will make sure chem, et al, stays in secure (ie their) hands when the regime falls … though they seem eager to keep them for themselves.**

    No one’s invading Syria anytime soon … the neocons can calm down.

    * http://www.csmonitor.com/World/terrorism-security/2012/0724/Chemical-weapons-Syria-backpedaling-furiously-over-weapons-threats

    ** http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9415889/Rebels-forming-unit-to-secure-chemical-weapons-site.html

  3. Tom – There’s one big flaw in your reasoning. Ed Helms got the Tysonesque face tattoo in The Hangover Part II, which took place in Thailand, not Las Vegas. Because of that, your whole argument falls to the ground.

  4. I see this going in one of two ways:

    The first, as Tom outlined, is that the nature of the Syrian crisis is changed from “humanitarian intervention” to “deproliferation”–but a deproliferation mission cannot be entrusted to rag-tag rebel groups; nor can it be done easily from the air–it will require an on the ground presence to take control of sites. So this option may be off the table. But if a deproliferation mission does take place, then Don’s point about the dangers of a WMD program are validated.

    The second, and disagreeing with the point Don raises earlier, is that if the Syrian threat causes other states to back off from considering intervention–then it is the final nail in the coffin of the Libya model, becuase it shows that possession of nasty stockpiles and credible delivery systems does act as a deterrent to external action. In this case, Iran, comparing the fates of Libya and Syria, might decide that it is worth it to accelerate its efforts to cross the finish line.

  5. It seems to me that one lesson other regimes can take away (this is related to Don’s point) is that they can pretty much do as they please if they can stay off the WMD radar. This was such an idiotic move that it makes it easy to believe that anyone with any brains was killed in the bombing a few weeks ago.

    • Well, this will be tomorrow’s column in WPR–with a hat tip back to the War Room included …

      I still think the jury is out. If a country stays off the WMD radar, and it then qualifies for intervention under Robert Pape’s pragamtic standard (see link here via Paul Pillar, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/intervention-end-games-syria-7230)–it may conclude that having WMD might be what raises the price to act beyond the “low-cost threshold” that Pape and Pillar discuss.

      I think we have to wait and see–if there is a perception that outside powers decided not to act in Syria because of WMD, or inaction is spun as “WMD kept them out”–versus what happened in Libya, it may change the calculus away from “Qaddafi 2003″–WMD are a liability.

  6. Tom, I recently heard that the CIA is in Syria and, among its other activities in support of the rebels, is actively working to secure the chemical weapons stocks. Have you picked up anything about this?

    • David – Other than what was leaked and blared on Drudge today, I don’t have any special knowledge about that stuff. I’ve asked John Schindler (now up and blogging on intel stuff at his own place, linked in the blogroll on the right) to comment if he has any insight.

      • Hi David/Tom – In Syria US intelligence is less active than you might think, despite massive efforts to locate and secure Syrian WMD, since the closure of our embassy in Damascus a few months back. Here, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, US dollars are mostly being spent by partner agencies, who have much better access.

        And, in another (presumably WH) leak (!), we have learned that POTUS signed a finding to support the Syrian rebels, and the US is participating in a basically Turkish-led multinational spook effort based in Adana.

        http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/01/us-usa-syria-obama-order-idUSBRE8701OK20120801