Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war
As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond. Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.
As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk. Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.
Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents. Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today. Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.
Pakistan stands out as the country of greatest concern. First, its nuclear arsenal is sizable. Islamabad stores more than 100 weapons, fed by several reactors and enrichment plants. The country also has a small but growing nuclear power sector.
But what makes Pakistan particularly dicey is that its dysfunctional government is confronting persistent terrorist violence — including attacks on military installations believed to house nuclear weapons components. The unrest prompted Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Ashlaq Kayani to say in August that the country could face civil war.
While Pakistan’s risks remain understood broadly, North Korea presents the opposite problem. U.S. intelligence repeatedly forecasts regime collapse. Yet the opaque Stalinist government hangs on even though it cannot feed its population, light or heat much of its cities or meet the modernization demands of the military. Despite decades of indoctrination, it still maintains the globe’s largest gulag.
While the Kim dynasty may muddle along, its continuing economic dysfunction, institutional rigidity, palace politics, tensions with South Korea and the unmet population needs raise genuine questions about long-term survival. Even a peaceful government exit would raise nuclear security questions. But some experts fear the regime’s demise could include a violent clash between competing factions.
Any U.S. or South Korean military intervention to lockdown nuclear elements could meet stiff armed resistance while nuclear custodians possibly race to sell atomic elements to the highest terrorist or rogue state bidder to feather their survival.
Then there remains Iran. It’s still without the bomb, but Tehran’s growing enriched stockpile supplies the path — should the leadership make the decision. Iran presents another concern, however: If civil unrest should break out, the large 1,000 megawatt Bushehr reactor offers a radiological target or hostage to civil war fighters. Though it’s in a remote corner of the Persian Gulf, a significant radiological release could pose risks to the Arab oil fields across the water.
An Iran civil war appears remote at first blush. After all, the government effectively quashed the 2009 Green Revolution and continues to maintain an effective security service. But the movement’s undercurrents continue, today complicated by international sanctions that have ruffled the nation’s economic stability, suggesting the country may yet descend into a renewed Iranian spring of serious violence set against the nuclear backdrop.
Given these dangers, U.S. defense planners have not been asleep. In 2010, the Quadrennial Defense Review—the Defense Department’s most recent long-term strategy assessment—acknowledged that the “instability or collapse of a WMD-armed state” would pose “a direct physical threat to the United States and all other nations.”
Syria’s chemical arsenal marks the first serious test of U.S. strategy to address WMD in civil war. In addition to placing very limited forces in Jordan, the measures taken to date include bluster–U.S. and allied threats to intervene were Syria to move or use the arsenal and to safeguard against intrusion or removal by rebels, terrorists or looters. In May the United States joined by 18 countries added weight to intervention by including in the long-planned Operation Eager Lion training exercise in Jordan contingencies to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons. At this point the effectiveness of these steps remains unclear.
However Syria’s chemical weapons scare resolves, it should serve as a wake-up call for nations to review their preparedness to meet the far more dangerous nuclear threat.
Given the perils, the U.S. government would do well to appoint an independent panel of experts to vet current strategy and incorporate the lessons of Syria. Because the public would bear the cost in blood and treasure of any serious intervention to curtail nuclear dangers, there must be an open component to the review that would allow comment.
The goal could be hardly more important — assurance that the next civil war with WMD at risk does not become the globe’s collective nuclear nightmare.
PHOTO: Pakistan’s nuclear-capable air-launched “Ra’ad” cruise missile driven past during National Day military parade in Islamabad. REUTERS//Mian Kursheed