Syria’s Nuclear Deterrent

    The present showdown over chemical weapons in Syria may not appear to have any relation to the nuclear theme of this blog, but it would be impossible for such a major conflict not to be connected to the balance of power in nuclear weapons. In the case of Syria, the phrase “nuclear deterrent” might seem odd because Syria has no nuclear weapons. But the phrase can be ambiguous. Is it a nuclear arsenal built to deter nuclear attack, or is it any type of weapon designed to deter a nuclear attack? It is usually assumed to be a nuclear arsenal, but Syria’s nuclear deterrent fits the latter description.
This is an important but neglected factor in the recent preoccupation that America has with Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. No one seemed to care until recently that Syria has for a long time maintained a stockpile of chemical weapons. America never really wanted to talk about why this situation was tolerated because doing so would have thrown light on the factor which made Syria want a chemical deterrent: Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal of approximately 300 warheads. Syria has long insisted on keeping chemical weapons as its sole means of countering the nuclear threat from Israel. A report in The Telegraph from 2004 quoted Assad as saying, "Syria would agree to destroy its chemical and biological capability only if Israel agreed to abandon its nuclear arsenal."

    Israel obviously has every reason to want to topple the Syrian regime and eliminate its chemical stockpile (see this on the New York Times accidental recent revelation that the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPEC was exerting heavy pressure on the US administration to strike Syria). The civil war in Syria has been fomented by non-state entities and by Israel, Turkey and Western countries, as well as by Sunni Arab countries who feel threatened by the Shiite alliance between Syria and Iran. The truth about who fired the chemical weapons in Syria on August 21 may never be known, but as far as plausibility goes, it reeks of a set up. Assad had nothing to gain by using chemical weapons, and everything to lose by crossing a line that he knew would invite retaliation fatal to his regime. On the other hand, rebel forces had much to gain by masking a chemical attack as coming from the Syrian government forces. This is entirely plausible, unless you believe the rebel forces would hesitate to sacrifice innocent lives to carry out this plot (read this testimony of a nun who witnessed rebel atrocities). Based on what’s happened so far in this war, it’s unlikely either side cares about the lives in the balance. What really seems to be at stake is the large stockpile of chemical weapons. 
    We could speculate that the original plan two years ago was to quickly topple Assad's regime by supporting proxy forces, then secure and destroy his chemical deterrent. Obviously, that hasn't gone as planned. Now Israel and the US must be desperate to do something, anything, to secure the stockpile before Assad uses it to deter attack, or before it falls into the hands of rogue elements. A RAND report on Syria addressed the difficulties, the risks and the fact that the objective could not be reached without ground forces:

In spite of often casual rhetoric about “taking out” Syria’s chemical weapon capability, the practical options for doing so have serious limitations, and attempting it could actually make things worse. Locating all Syrian chemical weapon facilities (e.g., storage sites, production facilities) and defining them well enough to design effective conventional air strikes against them would require very precise and detailed intelligence. And depending on the weapons employed in the strikes and the exact nature of the chemical weapons to be destroyed, collateral damage from the attacks could be substantial. Prospects for eliminating Syria’s extensive chemical weapon capabilities through air attack do not appear promising. At the very least, accomplishing this objective would require ground forces, and even then it may not be possible to neutralize the regime’s entire arsenal. Air power could be used, however, for retaliatory threats or attacks to deter further chemical weapon use. Air power could also be used to target the regime’s most efficient ways of delivering chemical weapons, thereby decreasing the regime’s capacity to inflict mass casualties through their use. Above all, it is essential to note that each of these aerial intervention measures could lead to further, more-extensive U.S. military involvement in Syria, particularly if it did not achieve its initial strategic objectives. Also, it could trigger serious escalatory responses from other parties such as Russia. Therefore, anticipating and assessing potential next steps beyond an initial intervention effort should be central to any strategic planning for using air power in Syria.

Since America threatened to attack Syria over the recent use of chemical weapons, much has been written about the enormous hypocrisy of America’s moral outrage over a thousand deaths by chemical weapons, in a war that has had an estimated 100,000 deaths already. In all of America’s wars of the late 20th century, a tremendous amount of chemicals have been rained on civilian populations, but unfortunately for the victims, they don’t qualify as “chemical” weapons under the terms of international agreements banning them. These agreements (The Hague Treaty, 1899, Geneva Protocol, 1925 ~) were drawn up in the early 20th century when the world was familiar with the use of chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene during WWI. They defined chemical weapons as they were perceived in WWI, as devices designed with only one purpose: to immediately incapacitate a military force or civilian population with a harmful chemical. Now we know that the collateral chemical effects of other weapons might be much more harmful long after the battle is over, but these were never considered until new weapons were developed and new hazards were better understood. The world’s moral outrage remains limited to this small list of narrowly-defined chemical weapons that have been seldom used since WWI, but used often enough to make all the major powers hypocrites on the issue.
It would be good if we could add a few more items to the list of banned chemical weapons, but unfortunately the list would be written by the five members of the UN Security Council who are all very attached to their arsenals. It is relatively simple to ban weapons that are only chemical in their nature and purposes, especially if they present an unmanageable threat to the armies that would use them. However, nations are much less likely to give up valuable weapons that merely have chemical side-effects that usually appear long after the battle and can’t then be definitively traced to a cause.
Thus it is that if we were to eliminate all weapons with chemical effects, we might almost succeed in eliminating war. Every lead bullet that is fired releases a puff of lead vapor that does some measurable harm to the shooter and the victim. Every bomb throws up a cloud of dangerous gasses and particles. Defoliants are not designed to kill soldiers immediately on the battlefield. They just cause cancer and birth defects in people who come in contact with them later. When news headlines say “US forces 'used chemical weapons' during assault on city of Fallujah” (depleted uranium for armor penetration, phosphorous for lighting up the battle field), it’s true, but legally the US is off the hook according to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, if they can define their targets as military and not civilian. In any case, it doesn't matter because no one can successfully prosecute the US military, even when they clearly do break the Geneva Convention.
   An article in The Atlantic covered State Department veteran William Polk's assessment of the present Syria dilemma which is accompanied by a history of the use of chemical weapons and the international agreements covering them. His assessment of the situation also includes the important mention of the five-year drought and crop failure that preceded the Syrian civil war:

After the war, the British, strongly urged by Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, used combinations of mustard gas, chlorine and other gases against tribesmen in Iraq in the 1920s. As he said, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” In the same spirit, the Spaniards used gas against the Moroccan Rif Berbers in the late 1920s; the Italians used it against Ethiopians in the 1930s; and the Japanese used it against the Chinese in the 1940s… More recently in 1962, I was told by the then chief of the CIA's Middle Eastern covert action office, James Critichfield that the Egyptians had used lethal concentrations of tear gas in their campaign against royalist guerrillas in Yemen… Just revealed documents show that the Reagan administration knew of the Iraqi use in the Iraq-Iran war of the same poison gas (Sarin) as was used a few days ago in Syria and Tabun (also a nerve gas)… Finally, Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008... I cite this history not to justify the use of gas – I agree with Secretary Kerry that use of gas is a “moral obscenity” -- but to show that its use is by no means uncommon. It is stockpiled by most states in huge quantities and is constantly being produced in special factories almost everywhere despite having been legally banned since the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925… Use, production and storage of such weapons was again banned in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a party). But nearly all the signatories to that convention reserved the right  legally to use such weapons if the weapons had been used against them (i.e. no first strike). The Convention, unfortunately, contains no provision banning the use of weapons, as Saddam certainly did and as Assad is accused of doing, in civil war.

Finally, the greatest weapons of all could also be re-construed as chemical and thus become even more repugnant to the global community. UN agreements like to define everything into categories, so nuclear bombs are defined as explosives and radiological hazards, but not as chemical weapons. Nonetheless, every radioactive isotope released in nuclear weapons tests also has toxic chemical properties, and nuclear explosions also release large amounts of stable isotopes that have toxic chemical effects. Our moral outrage over chemical weapons should lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Which brings this discussion back to Israel. Syria has its present chemical stockpiles because it wanted a way to deter nuclear attack by Israel. These chemicals may or may not have been used by Syrian government forces recently, but their very existence is what has caused the present showdown. Everyone knows Israel has nuclear weapons, but Israel refuses to drop its policy of ambiguity which is to neither confirm nor deny their existence. It might be too late, now that various nations have tried to eliminate the Syrian deterrent by dismantling Syria through a proxy war, but a better solution might have been for the global community to have insisted long ago on Israel’s nuclear disarmament. Considering the potential for a large global conflict to start in this region, this would be the place to start on the long road toward total global nuclear disarmament.


Brogan, Benedict. "Syria Asserts its Rights to Chemical Weapons." The Telegraph, January 7, 2004.
Fallows, James. “Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 2: William Polk.” The Atlantic, September 2, 2013.
"Footage of Chemical Attack in Syria is a Fraud." Russia Today, September 6, 2013. 
Gold, Hadas. “N.Y. Times scraps AIPAC from Syria story.” Politico, September 3, 2013.
Gladstone, R., Lehren, A.W. and Sanger, D.E. “With the World Watching, Syria Amassed Nerve Gas.” The New York Times, September 7, 2013.
Popham, Peter. “US forces 'used chemical weapons' during assault on city of Fallujah.” The Independent, November 8, 2005.
Air Power Options for Syria. Rand Corporation, Center for Middle East Public Policy, 2013.

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