A State’s WMD Are Just as Likely to Threaten It as Protect It

In March at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles Blair wrote:

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is thought to be massive. One of only eight nations that is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention … Syria has a chemical arsenal that includes several hundred tons of blistering agents along with likely large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons.

On July 13 the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials were alarmed by reports that Syria has begun moving some of its chemical weapons out of storage facilities. Then, the BBC reports, Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s defecting ambassador to Iraq, said that, if cornered President Bashar al-Assad “will not hesitate to use chemical weapons.” Worse, “There is information, unconfirmed information of course, that chemical weapons have been used partially in the city of Homs.”

On the other hand, at the Atlantic, Sara Sorcher thinks that, in fact, “Assad’s strong hold on power has so far, from a chemical-weapons standpoint, staved off a potential disaster without an easy fix.” Her concern is reflected in the subtitle to the piece:

What happens to Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile — one of the largest in the world — if the deeply divided and untrained rebels overthrow his regime?

Blair aired the same concern in March.

While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents … are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being “hijacked” by jihadists. Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil-war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.

Furthermore, Sorcher writes, “the latest development underscores what some worry is a fundamental lack of preparation in Washington for what might happen next.” She quotes Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who

… argues the U.S. should encourage the sites’ trained custodians–who may be contemplating defection–to remain in place. “You want to advise them that if they stick to their mission of protecting these sites … that they will be treated in a special category that will get some protection,” Spector said, calling on Washington to advise the Syrian opposition to get this message out. However, Syria’s opposition is still disorganized, and the West retains a lingering distrust of opposition groups with possible extremist ties.

If not for the fear that Assad might use WMD, the case could be made to prop him up if only to keep WMD out of the hands of insurgents who range from unpredictable to outright malevolent. The situation parallels that of another state somewhat. With its enmity for India, the West fears that Pakistan might not be able to restrain itself from launching nuclear weapons at India. Still that’s preferable to the West’s greater fear: that Islamic militants will seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

A state acquires weapons, especially WMD, not just for national security, but to ensure the survivability of the ruling regime or prevailing mode of government (such as democracy or communism). But, it may fail to anticipate conditions that can result in WMD being seized — or just plain lost in the shuffle, as when the Soviet Union dissolved — and used against it.

‘Twas ever thus with weapons. It’s just that, with WMD, the danger is exponentially amplified.