Syria and chemical weapons: What can the US do now?


A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position in Aleppo's al-Amereya district December 11, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • As control of Syria’s terrain slips from Assad’s grasp, there are indications that Assad has moved weapons stock piles.

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  • Why would Assad use chemical weapons at this late date given threats from Washington and Europe of intervention?

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  • .@DPletka: Are there prospects for a diplomatic solution to the fighting in Syria? In short, no.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Washington Post's "Open for Discussion" in response to the question: In the face of potential chemical weapons being released on its own population, what can or should the US do about Syria at this stage of the game?

Earlier this year, Barack Obama announced that a red line for the United States would be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s movement, transfer or use of Syria’s ample chemical weapons stockpile. At the time, it appeared the president was looking for an opportunity to sound tough in response to a conflict that he had heretofore chosen to observe from afar. Any prospect for the actual use of those weapons by Assad seemed farfetched. 

But as the control of Syria’s terrain has slipped from Assad’s grasp, there are reportedly indications that not only has Assad moved weapons stockpiles, he has ordered precursors for Sarin nerve gas mixed in preparation for their use. As a result, the tough talk Obama embraced earlier has disappeared, as the leader of the free world and his staff contort themselves to explain that when the president earlier warned of “moving” chemical weapons as a “red line,” what he really meant was “proliferate”, not physically move. Ah.

Why would Assad use chemical weapons at this late date given threats from Washington and Europe of intervention? Perhaps he is convinced it is the last step that could decisively win him back Syria and end the civil war that has risked the Assad family’s decades-long hold on power. No matter what, the introduction of the WMD card into the Syrian equation, and Obama’s flip-flopping on what would constitute a casus belli for the United States mean that there are few serious new options to end the fighting that has claimed more than 40,000 Syrians. Rather, it seems likely that the U.S. will continue following the French and British lead, possibly recognizing a government in exile but doing little more to assist in delivering the death blow to Assad. 

Are there prospects for a diplomatic solution to the fighting in Syria?  In short, no.  Either Assad goes to one of the South American proto-dictators that seems ready to welcome him, or he dies. Either way, he’s finished. The real questions that remain in Syria are the aftermath and how much more blood it will take to get there.     

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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


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