Defining Weapons of Mass Destruction and War in Syria
The calls to war over Syria grow more insistent. Many of the usual suspects who are convinced it is better to destabilize entire regimes and regions than “lead from behind,” are joining the voices of human rights groups appalled by Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad’s brutal attempts to tamp down the various rebel forces. An analysis of Syria should leave aside the budget busting $6 trillion dollars we will have spent on Iraq because as has become clear, money is not considered an issue when it comes to grand ideological battles, however existentially or tenuously related to our own national interests. Senator Lindsay Graham persists in calling for boots on the ground in Syria. Sen. McCain does not want boots on the ground but demands the United States enforce a no-fly zone to help the Syrian rebels lest Syria becomes a failed state. Calls for war in Syria ignore the almost overwhelming odds that what we seek to achieve, may simply not be achievable, and a voluntary war fought at any cost may be a greater threat to our actual national interest than any existential or philosophical ones.
Syria’s status as a failed state to the extent this is not already a foregone conclusion is at this point fodder for the ivory towered warriors among the academic class. Calls for war seek to thread a needle of supporting not some of the most successful rebels fighting with President Assad, members of the Nusra Front, who are supported by Al Qaeda, but other rebels like the Free Syrian Army. Proponents of intervention and war believe that the arms and aid sent to the rebels will not reach the rebels Al-Qaeda is also supporting but different rebels groups. They are also assuming that these rebel groups will like us and appreciate us for our support enough such that they will be loyal to us and their gratitude will outweigh their bonds to each other. This is a dubious assumption given that many within the other rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army and the Sahaba Army consider the Nusra Front an effective ally against a common enemy. Not to mention the fact that have no method of tracking where the arms we send go nor controlling in whose hands they wind up. Nor is the Nasra Front alone among the rebel groups in acting like a force of militant Islam. So it must be, as it is argued by advocates for a war on Syria, the existence and use of weapons of the mass destruction that justifies intervention and war on our part. Once more into the breach the United States must go, or so it is argued, in order to exert zero tolerance for weapons of mass destruction anywhere.
Keep in mind- weapons of mass destruction were not always so ubiquitous. There was a time, not that long ago when the term weapons of mass destruction would never have been used to describe a kitchen appliance. Weapons of mass destruction used to mean nuclear bombs. WMDs are not deliverable by conventional means or on grenade launchers or machine guns. WMDs used to mean things sufficiently dangerous to pose a global threat and national threat, not a regional or local one. WMDs invoke images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because they are, as Oppenheimer reflected, entirely reminiscent of the Hindu god Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds, they are Death itself. They have historically referred to weapons capable of destroying entire cities and millions of people at one time.
We need to go back to this definition and not use the term WMD to refer to all objects that lead to loss of life. If we do not, we are setting the stage to allow AR-15s, and food vendors that lead to cases of food poisoning to be considered someone’s WMD. A WMD is a weapon capable of being projected across continents like inter-continental ballistic missiles. Their range and their sheer destructive ability pose a threat to entire nation states. Israel is the only nation in the region to possess WMDs. Yet another legacy of the Iraq War was that WMDs came to refer to chemical weapons and now through hyperbole even a pressure cooker.
Before we commit billions more to another war, we need to stop giving WMDs a roving definition-not just in the context of Syria either. We need to be able to answer the question of how much better will a Syria be that is controlled by one of the rebel factions, many of whom have proven themselves to be militant murderous Islamists than the Syria under Assad? If war proponents want a war, where is the secular rebel faction that they hope to prop up capable of assuming the reins of power after Assad? If Iraq is any lesson and it must be, before you go toppling regimes you helped put in place and supported, have a plan B-an actual post toppling strategy. We supported the Baath Party and Assad as we once supported Saddam-we cannot afford another $6 trillion ideological flight of fancy. Senators Graham and McCain et. al. owe the American people an articulable and actual reason for intervention but this time, not one that relies on faulty intelligence or mere existential threats. If the reason to intervene in Syria is for humanitarian reasons, then Senators Graham and McCain ought to simply so-but this time, they better have a better plan.
R. Tamara de Silva