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WMD Deterrence in Syria

There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.

The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.

With all the hoarding of weapons we have seen over decades in repressive countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria, at the moment of truth, the main use for such weapons (Assad in 1982 against the Muslim brothers in Hama, Saddam in the 1988 Anfal campaign to exterminate the Kurds and 1991 against Kurds and Shi’ites) was against domestic opponents, not foreign enemies.

Whether Syria’s use of sarin gas against its own people still requires conclusive proof, one can be sure that sooner or later, Middle East regimes will always turn their weapons against their own people. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tours the region offering weapons deals to U.S. allies, we should take note of that and remember that countries like Saudi Arabia will have less scruples using American weaponry to kill their own internal dissidents if need be than to contain Iran. And that while U.S. weaponry sold to Egypt might not give the Egyptian military a qualitative edge of Israel’s might, it will certainly facilitate the crushing of dissent in future disturbances.

Given that Middle East dictators have only balked at the use of weapons against their own people when the army refused to shoot–not out of any moral qualms–when it comes to WMD arsenals, that also means that unscrupulous rulers should never have access to WMD’s–watch Syria, think Iran.

Pre-emptive action against any further recourse to such weapons is therefore imperative–not just on humanitarian grounds, but also on deterrent ones.