Syria’s WMD Bluster: We’ve Heard It Before

Syria delivers a threat:

Syrian officials warned Monday that they would deploy chemical weapons against any foreign intervention, a threat that appeared intended to ward off an attack by Western nations while also offering what officials in Washington called the most “direct confirmation” ever that Syria possesses a stockpile of unconventional armaments.

They’re no way they would make such a threat if they didn’t actually have the capacity to deliver on it, right? Well, actually…

Saddam Hussein told an FBI interviewer before he was hanged that he allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction because he was worried about appearing weak to Iran, according todeclassified accounts of the interviews released yesterday.


Hussein’s fear of Iran, which he said he considered a greater threat than the United States, featured prominently in the discussion about weapons of mass destruction. Iran and Iraq had fought a grinding eight-year war in the 1980s, and Hussein said he was convinced that Iran was trying to annex southern Iraq — which is largely Shiite. “Hussein viewed the other countries in the Middle East as weak and could not defend themselves or Iraq from an attack from Iran,” [Saddam’s FBI interrogator George] Piro recounted in his summary of a June 11, 2004, conversation.

“The threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of UN inspectors,” Piro wrote. “Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq.”

Hussein noted that Iran’s weapons capabilities had increased dramatically while Iraq’s weapons “had been eliminated by the UN sanctions,” and that eventually Iraq would have to reconstitute its weapons to deal with that threat if it could not reach a security agreement with the United States.

That Iraq bluffed about having WMD is not a reason to dismiss Syria’s threat. In fact, the case that Syria has a significant and deadly arsenal of chemical weapons is more likely than Saddam having been able to hide WMD from the inspections forced upon him after the Gulf War. Syria has not suffered a defeat like Saddam’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, so it hasn’t had to permit weapons inspectors traipsing around checking out what nasty tools of mass death they’ve assembled. And it’s easy to accept they would develop chemical weapons, given that the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the Syrian facility destroyed by Israel in 2007 was probably a nuclear reactor.

Syria’s threat was probably not directed primarily toward the United States. It’s highly unlikely that we would commit ground forces to an attack against Syria, and chemical weapons don’t have anti-aircraft applications. Instead, similar to Iraq’s bluster being directed toward it’s larger neighbor Iran, Syria’s bluster is probably intended for its larger and increasingly bellicose neighbor Turkey.

What Americans need to keep in mind is this is the kind of gamesmanship directed at regional rivals that US neocons misrepresent as an imminent and grave threat to US interests, and even to US security. Yes, it’s bad if Syria does indeed possess large amounts of chemical weapons. The Assad government says it would only use chemical weapons against “external aggression,” but if Assad sees the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens as a last-ditch effort to avoid the noose, one would be a fool to say with absolute certainty that he won’t. And it’s surely a serious problem for regional stability and a possible boon to international terrorists or rogue states if the Assad regime loses control of its chemical weapons and they fall in to the hands of unsavory characters who use them to extort demands or even deploy them against people. But be wary if you hear US neocons talking about WMD as a reason for us to intervene in Syria. There may be valid reasons to intervene against Syria (although I can’t think of any that aren’t outweighed by the likely costs). But Syria posing a grave and imminent threat against the United States is not one of them.

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