Just days before the 2004 presidential election, the New York Times sought to spring an October Surprise. It breathlessly broke a story that the U.S. military failed to guard an Iraqi weapons depot at al-Qa’qaa, allowing insurgents to make off with tons of weaponry. Subsequent reporting suggested problems with the Times’ story, but the larger point remains: As regimes collapse, militias and insurgents consider their caches of weaponry up for grabs.
In Libya, the Obama administration sought to “lead from behind” and so did little to stop militiamen—some affiliated with al-Qaeda—from looting Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s stockpiles of rockets and surface-to-air missiles.
In Syria, the problem of insecure weaponry looms. The longer fighting continues, the more al-Qaeda-affiliated groups entrench themselves in Syria. Bashar al-Assad sought to build a covert nuclear plant; it is far from clear that all nuclear material is under control. While the Central Intelligence Agency got pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear program wrong, there are still open questions about whether an Iraqi convoy that drove to Syria in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom carried chemical and/or biological weapons. Regardless, Syria had its own stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons prior to that conflict, and presumably still does.
The Obama administration is correct to say that a military option in Syria would be complicated—Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union; Iran is drooling at the prospect of embroiling America in another insurgency, and the Syrian opposition is fractured. But, it must also recognize that the cost of doing nothing will not only be a tragedy for the Syrian people, but will also come at a real cost for U.S. national security. At the very least, the Obama administration should actively plan to secure Syrian weaponry, if it is not already too late.