the Case for Responding to the Use of WMDs


The first sentence of the White House report sums the report: “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21 2013[1].” The report goes on to demonstrate why the intelligence community assumes the agent used to be sarin neurotoxin. “High confidence” is strongest degree of certainty short of empirical confirmation. This report is a compilation of myriad sources from human intelligence (HUMINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), geospatial intelligence (overhead imaging), and the body of open source reporting (including witnesses and victims), and had input from all 16 agencies making up the “Intelligence Community.” Test results from the United Nations inspection team will be released in a week or two, and as such, weren’t included in this report[2].

Twelve neighborhoods, arching from south of Damascus around to the east were affected. Multiple streams of intel report a rocket and artillery attack on the suburbs (all of which are held by rebel forces, or in serious contention) in the early hours of August 21. Overhead sensors corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods that, approximately 90 minutes later, showed effects of a sarin incident[3]. No such rocket launches or artillery fire were detected as coming from rebel-held areas. Best estimates at the time of writing the report indicate that ~1,429 were killed, including 426 children[4]. The attack began with simultaneous strikes in the Kafr, Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya and Mu’addamiyah neighborhoods, carried out with the coordinated use of rocket and artillery fire. Opposition forces have never shown the ability to mount such a widespread, coordinated attack[5]. The report mentions multiple previous chemical attacks – all much smaller in magnitude – over the past year, all on rebel-held neighborhoods and strongholds[6].

The report then goes on to document the attack itself, using many on-site videos, journalists, and first-hand accounts as sources for this description, and asserts that rebel forces do not possess the capability to fake such widespread reports, photos, videos and journalist accounts[7]. In the fluidity of combat operations and press suppression, this is as close to “solid” proof that you’re going to get, and I’m sure the classified version only strengthens the case. This is the atmosphere within which leaders act. They never have a slam-dunk “Guilty” case from which to decide.

Chemical weapons are grouped with other area-effect weapons that kill indiscriminately due to their large lethal footprint. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are all considered to be Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and are specifically banned by multiple treaties, agreements and organizations. They are universally prohibited. OK, now what?

If we do not respond, Assad (or any other despot) can gather that he may use WMD with impunity (as long he stays in power – I call this the “Saddam Tensor”). Iran is also reassured that nothing will come from President Obama’s “not tolerating” a nuclear Iran. This may well be false comfort, but the important thing is, Tehran will confidently ignore American displeasure. Treaties and agreements with the United States are now in jeopardy. Europe and NATO must now rethink the “axiom” of the American Nuclear Umbrella – will we be there if needed? Who knows? And that doubt has repercussions worldwide – from Japan to the Middle East to Europe and, especially, to Russia and PRC. A failure to enforce something as basic as prohibiting open-air holocausts, in other words, would be very destabilizing. Worldwide.

As history’s most powerful nation – as leader of the Free World – we must stand by our commitments, and the president committed us to act in this very instance. You may not agree with the wisdom of making that commitment – hell, he may not now agree with the wisdom of making that commitment – but make that commitment he did. This is no longer about Mr Obama’s credibility … it’s about American credibility, and at a time when that commodity is devaluing daily. This is no longer about Syria … it’s about stability in turbid world. It may well be tragicomic that this is unraveling because of an ad lib during an otherwise forgettable speech, but here we are. His rhetoric profoundly impacts events far beyond the colloquial circumstances of their utterance.

I don’t think we’ve got any wriggle-room here. We have to act, with or without some contrived “coalition.” And this is true, by the way, regardless of President Obama’s ad lib – we are bound to act by numerous treaties, agreements and organizations. The problem with the president’s statement, is that it’s out there for everybody to see. Now, we either act or don’t, no spinning necessary, the president is either to be taken seriously or he is an empty suit. It doesn’t detract from the far more important implications mentioned above, but it adds a personal vector (for the president) that can’t be divorced from whatever happens.

[1] White House, United States Assessment on Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons, August 30 2013, 1314EDT, p. 1.

[2] Ibid., pp. 1-3.

[3] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[4] Ibid., p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.