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GAFFNEY: Syria and the poisonous fruit of wishful thinking

- - Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A chemical weapons pact written in desperation is wasted ink

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, announced a deal last weekend that is supposed to make the Syrian problem go away, or rather, make Bashar Assad's chemical weapons go away. Or at least disappear President Obama's immediate political problem with breached red lines and an America with no appetite for war with Syria in response.

The bottom line: It isn't going to happen. The only question is: Will this deal actually make things worse in any, or all, of those respects?

The old axiom, "You want it bad, you'll get it bad," applied to the three days of fevered bilateral negotiations in Geneva that produced the so-called "plan" for international control and dismantling of the entire Syrian chemical arsenal. Mr. Obama and his top diplomat understood this Russian-supplied lifeline to be the only hope for extricating them from the disastrous debacle their feckless Syria policy had become.

The best that can be hoped for from this deal is that it will reduce somewhat Mr. Assad's stockpile of chemical arms. However, it is national security fraud — something Team Obama has perpetrated serially since it came to office — to tell the American people the Kerry-Lavrov plan will actually eliminate it. The costs for even trying are likely to be far higher than we are being told.

Consider the following facts of life:

Dealing with toxic nerve agents, mustard gas and other lethal chemical weapons and the munitions they go in — even storing them, let alone moving and disposing of them — is a very hazardous business under the best of circumstances. Needless to say, a civil war in which both sides are interested in having access to such weapons of mass destruction is not such an environment. Already, there is talk about having to put somebody's "boots on the ground" to secure whichever stocks are declared. That is a formula for getting such foreign troops (ours?) killed when hostiles target the weapons they are protecting or for seeing them become embroiled as combatants in Syria's civil war.

Not surprisingly, there are a host of practical issues that likely will further undermine, if not doom, this deal. They will help determine how expensive, complex and perhaps ultimately futile the Kerry-Lavrov disarmament scheme will be. For example, are all the weapons supposed to be destroyed in place by next June — an undertaking involving the construction of specialized incinerators whose operation in this country has proved to be exceedingly time-consuming, costly and hazardous? Who is going to pay for constructing such facilities and keep them from being targeted in the ongoing civil war?

Alternatively, are Mr. Assad's weapons to be shipped out of Syria by then, and if so, to where? Russia? Great idea. Ditto places like Saudi Arabia or Turkey. How about here? Any takers?

At its core, even the face value of any such ambitious disarmament plan rests on the accuracy of the inventory of Mr. Assad's chemical arsenal. What are the chances that the United States will get full disclosure — let alone by the end of the week? As recent revelations about how the supposedly cooperative Moammar Gadhafi lied about his chemical stockpile remind us, totalitarian thugs are not trustworthy. That is especially true of one in the Kremlin.

How this almost certainly will work is that Mr. Assad's inventory will basically track with whatever intelligence assessment we shared with the Russians during last week's version of "Let's Make a Deal." That's right: Mr. Kerry's delegation told Mr. Lavrov's what we thought was there — approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and agents. The Russians, we're told, affirmed that estimate. Surely, they shared our data with their Syrian client, on whose behalf, lest we forget, they are explicitly working.

If our data understates Mr. Assad's actual stockpile, which is almost surely the case, you have what is known in the intelligence business as the "garbage in, garbage out" phenomenon: Inputting erroneous assumptions leads inevitably to faulty conclusions. In this case, this will likely mean that — even if all the other logistical, security and disposal problems are somehow overcome — at the end of the day, the Syrian regime will still have chemical weapons, and probably biological ones, too.

How could it be otherwise? The U.S. government has never formally confirmed that Syria received chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. While there are reports that Mr. Assad is sending some of them back to Iraq now (among other shell-game-style movements of his chemical arsenal among roughly 50 sites in Syria itself), our estimates are sure to be off. Then, there's the undeclared help Mr. Assad has received from North Korea and Iran in producing and concealing his chemical and biological weapons.

The larger problem is that all this sharing of information and other revelations about how we detect and monitor chemical weapons movements and dispositions is a field day for our adversaries' counterintelligence operations. Count on them to learn from us and to make it vastly harder for us to know what they are up to in the future.

In short, the current crisis in Syria is not going away. The problems arising from previous fraudulent deals to "rid the world of chemical weapons" are likely to be compounded by this one, not eliminated by Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov — any more than will be the case with all of Mr. Assad's chemical arms.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program "Secure Freedom Radio."