Syria Can't Be Trusted to Give Up Chemical Weapons, Security Insiders Say

Sara Sorcher, National Journal
September 17, 2013

Three-quarters of National Journal's National Security Insiders say Syria cannot be trusted to give up its chemical weapons, despite the plan to transfer Syria's massive chemical stockpile to international control, where it can be destroyed.

"The Russians are buying more time for Syria to move and hide its chemical-weapons arsenal and propping up [Syria's strongman] Bashar al-Assad," one Insider said. The experts were polled during the international negotiations to implement the plan. "How can we trust a regime which kills its own population with heinous weapons? Russia and Syria are in control of the timeline and are capitalizing on U.S. weakness. One of my mentors said this foreign policy farce is reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis that also took advantage of a weak POTUS, Jimmy Carter." Another Insider said Syria would try to delay a deal to hide as much of the chemical arsenal as possible "much as Saddam Hussein did." Even so, the Insider added, the diplomatic option is "still worth the effort."

Other Insiders said the effort would fail for tactical reasons. "The issue really is less one of trust than the practicality of exercising international control in the middle of a civil war," one Insider said. "It's not going to happen, even if Assad really wanted it to happen. Who is going to do it? American boots on the ground? European or Arab? No way. Russian boots? Iranian? Maybe.… The whole idea is a nonsense, but Obama is in such a desperate situation, he has no choice but to buy it."

One-quarter of Insiders said Syria would follow through. Syria may be willing to give up its arsenal with pressure from Russia, an Insider said, although "verification of the elimination of its entire stockpile will be fraught with challenges, given the difficulty of movement for aid workers, journalists, or verification teams subject to kidnapping, beheading, and other threats throughout rebel controlled areas of the state." While the effort is worth exploring, the Insider said, U.S. leaders should be skeptical about the probability of success.

Separately, Insiders were split over whether there are good national security reasons for the U.S. to strike Syria, outside of the moral argument to intervene. A slim majority of 52 percent said there were no compelling security reasons for Washington to get involved. "This is a war we should stay out of," one Insider said. "Help contain it, yes; help fight it, no."

Insiders warned of dangerous downsides to intervention. "From a pure national security perspective, strikes to topple a relatively stable regime with no acceptable opposition group strong enough to take over is a recipe for chaos on the order of Libya, Lebanon,  or possibly even Somalia. We don't want that."

Forty-eight percent of Insiders said national security was at stake and called for intervention. "There are only national security reasons. Chemical-weapons use is intolerable because we do not want them to be on the receiving end someday," one Insider said. "We signed a treaty with other countries that feel the same way. In such circumstances, to do nothing would invite the unraveling of that regime and weaken all similar ones." Another added: "Middle East stability is a vital U.S. national security interest."

U.S. credibility is at stake since Obama said chemical weapons use was Washington's "red line," one Insider said. "Allies and adversaries alike are watching to see if the U.S. will be a paper tiger."

National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

1. Can Syria be trusted to give up its chemical-weapons arsenal to international control to avoid U.S. military action?

(60 votes)

No 75%

Yes 25%


"UN or NATO inspectors must control all stockpiles, for any agreement to have a chance to succeed. Once on ground, inspectors will need security to keep weapons safe until disposition is determined."

"But we should pursue international control anyway."

"It isn't a matter of trust. It is a matter of knowing—that is, intelligence. Syria has had enough time and owns enough hidey-holes to make finding and accounting for the stuff really tough."

"Not without verification."

"Syria can in fact be trusted to try to get around any agreement that is put in place. That tendency needs to be countered every step of the way."

"Putin and Assad have to enjoying themselves watching Obama and Kerry turning into pretzels."

"Chemical weapons are ubiquitous, and chemicals for commercial use can be easily used. So even though they may give up some of what they have now, if Syria wants to use chemical weapons, they can figure out a way to do so even after giving them up."

"Doesn't matter. This gets Obama out of a hole he dug for himself."

"No, we cannot trust the Syrians and certainly not the Russians who come in trying to upstage United States and leave Syria with chemical weapons."

"That would be giving up weapons that, to date, they have not confirmed that they even possess, right?"

"But Syrian deception will be on Russia's dime. There's not a better deal out there."

"I don't think it really will, but will do enough to prevent a strike and stop using them. For a while."

"The Iraqis could not be trusted with their chemical weapons, and the Syrians have quite a few more reasons to hinder any international inspection mechanisms than the Iraqis did. They are very adept at masking the movements of their chemical-weapons troops."

"They will do everything in their power to circumvent any chemical- weapons control efforts. I'm also certain the Russians and the Iranians will help the Syrians hide some of their chemical weapons."

"If this proposal gets implemented, it will take many years and produce no certainty of disarmament."

"Syria and Russia will drag out any negotiations as long as possible until the U.S. will to strike collapses. In the end, Bashar al-Assad will not give up his chemical weapons quickly, cheaply, or easily."

"Why should they give up their hole card? Without them, they are like Lebanon without the beaches."

"I wouldn't bet on it. Plus the U.S. is demanding a pace and level of comprehensive confirmation that almost certainly can't be satisfied."


"Trust but verify."

"They know that if they are caught out, they will get the Saddam treatment."

"But only if buttressed by threat of force and strong international supervision with U.N. Chapter 7 authority."

"I would suggest that Syria realizes now that it overplayed its hand and would be loathe to employ chemical weapons again."

"The Syrians, the Russians, and Iranians can be trusted enough to provide the minimum for the administration to extract itself from the debacle. Just enough to call off military action."

"There's no cut-and-dried answer here. The question is, if Syria gives up most of its chemical weapons, would that count as a policy victory?"

2. Outside the moral argument to intervene in Syria, are there good national security reasons for U.S. to strike Syria?

(60 votes)

No 52%

Yes 48%


"International norms are a weak reed; the regional downside of an attack is compelling reason not to do it."

"We would be intervening in a civil war."

"But if we are a global hegemon who believes in values, the moral argument should be enough. And morals matter."

"Simply not a U.S. national security concern."

"Pulling yet another long-term occupation such as Iraq or Afghanistan. We will instead leave it to chaos. A negotiated settlement is best outcome."

"Not really, but if we want to really effect change we should target both the Assad regime and select rebel forces alligned with terrorist organizations to force both the legitimate (read: U.S. palatable) domestic Syrian opposition and Assad to the negotiating table to come up with a Syrian solution on their own."

"Not in the manner proposed. U.S. national security interests are to contain the impact of the Syrian conflict on the neighborhood and to prevent either Iranian-sponsored or Sunni terrorists from establishing a stronger foothold there."

"No, primarily because we are so uncertain about the actual makeup of the rebel groups and what the downstream implications would be."

"If Iran is the real problem, then address Iran directly. They are more than happy to have us wrestle in the mud with their surrogate."

"This is a feckless exercise, ill-handled by an administration clearly over its head. We cannot participate in every civil war around the war; especially one of no strategic interest to the U.S."

"Security 'concerns' [involved in Syria]. In order for chemical weapons in Syria to implicate U.S. national security, you'd need a combination of M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali, and Rube Goldberg. It's not about national security. (The moral argument is bad, too, but you didn't ask about that.)"

"Preserving the chemical-weapons taboo is valuable, but it's neither a vital national security interest nor is it obvious that a military response is the best option."


"U.S. national security is at stake, but Obama's plan to strike them in an incredibly small way would do nothing to advance those interests. Rather, his is a strategy aimed only at saving himself personal embarrassment. No wonder he can't sell it to Congress or the American people."

"U.S. national security is at risk when a regime with chemical or biological weapons cannot control them or may provide them to groups who will employ them against U.S. interests."

"The whole world is watching."

"There are good reasons if we see ourselves in a long-term conflict with Iran. If we decide we aren't serious about stopping Iran from becoming a hegemon, then there is no good reason to strike Syria."

"Yes, a strike would show American resolve and send a signal to Iran and North Korea about our lack of toleration for the use of chemical weapons against civilians. But without clear articulation about how such action outweighs the potential second- and third-order effects from collateral damage, from the increasingly lethal and influential Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (who are attracting and organizing thousands of foreign fighters to the region), and even negative impact on allies around the globe who do not endorse unilateral action, it may not be the most prudent instrument of power for the president to use. The president must consider the ardent opposition from the American public, Congressional leaders, defense officials, international allies, and even the pope. President Putin's diplomatic proposal to have international monitors take control of and destroy the Syrian government's chemical-weapons arsenal has given the president a new lifeline and answering the R2P call might be best served if this approach is viable and verifiable. But implementing such a potentially promising program would be a arduous task."

"It is a proxy war being waged by Iran."

"Unfortunately, through sheer incompetence, we've made ourselves look like a poor, pitiful giant and have to reestablish the deterrent value of our power."

"In addition to reducing the power of jihadists and the destabilization of the Middle East, we have a grave interest in ensuring that Iran believes that we uphold our own red lines. If Iran thinks we are not serious about red lines, they are likely to move towards a nuclear weapon—we are likely to maintain that red line—and then we will be in a war we don't want. Better to deter by showing we are serious."

"Absolutely! Syria is far more strategically important to the U.S. than Libya. It is Iran's front-line state on the Mediterranean and is a conduit for Iranian weapons and advisers to Hezbollah, thus affecting the stability of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as Turkey. Syria is also Russia's premier client state in the Middle East. Anything we can do to stymie Iranian and Russian influence in the region is in our interest. The question we have to ask is what type of regime would come after Assad and whether that devil may be worse than the one we already know."

"We still have security interests in the Middle East. There is no 'free pass' for those who feel we can just disengage."

"The US has declared vital Interests in two ways: this is a classic VP Cheney "1%" problem where you couple a growing Al-Qaeda safe haven and whatever remains of Syria's nuclear development project (remember the Israeli strike on al-Kibar) in a country that is unraveling and in chaos which is a good case study for the 1% debate re. preventive operations; second, we have declared Vital Interests in the defense of Israel, KSA and article 5 NATO obligations to Turkey."