This week may well see the U.S. and the U.K. fire live rounds against Syrian chemical-weapons-related targets. The Obama administration has already begun to trumpet the need to deter Syria’s military and others from using chemical weapons. Yet, to accomplish even this “limited” mission will require far more than pinprick covert drone strikes or nuanced leadership “from behind.” Instead, it will demand overt military operations sure to anger Iran and Syria’s other ally, Russia, and lock into motion a major Middle Eastern cold war.
Make no mistake, deterring future chemical use is not for the faint hearted. Peter Feaver, in his excellent blog, “U.S. Interests and the Syrian Chemical Weapons Challenge,” had the measure of what’s required — massive air strikes or “boots on the ground” to eliminate Syria’s stockpiles. Anything less risks leakage to the worst actors — terrorist rebels. Go light on your attacks against Assad and you also hazard making your penalty sufficiently tolerable to suggest that gassing is profitable.
Some in the Obama administration, of course, want to avoid angering Iran and Russia lest it tip over prospective negotiating opportunities that might lead to nuclear restraint. They should think again. At this late date, it’s unlikely anything — including military strikes — will keep Iran from getting a bomb if it chooses to do so. Yet, the very best way to guarantee even worse Iranian behavior in the region is to allow it to “win” in Syria and maintain its easy access to Lebanon. Better that Tehran should pay heavily and ultimately lose.
As for Russia, it is in no mood to give up its nuclear weapons, not just because it wants to compete with the U.S., but because it truly fears China. This is not about to change. What is is how much more Moscow will be meddling in the Middle East if the U.S. and its allies let Assad stay in power with light strikes and wane assistance to the dwindling numbers of legitimate rebels.
We backed into this war late. As a result, the stakes are high. Given his earlier admonitions, Mr. Obama now must act. He’d best not play at it.
— Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, VA and is editor of Nuclear Weapons Security Crises: What Does History Teach (2013)