As if warped by some giant conspiratorial black hole, any discussion of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons inevitably bends back in time and space to Iraq in 2003. Remember the meme that Saddam Hussein transferred his deadly weapons to Syria ahead of the U.S. invasion? If not, you can bet you’ll hear it if Bashar Assad follows through on his threat to use chemical weapons against a foreign incursion. But this retroactive justification for the Iraq invasion will be just as bogus as every other time it’s come up in the last 10 years.
I’ve already debunked one of the rumors about Iraq’s WMD. I’m not buying this one. Here’s why.
First: Think about it for a second. Strategically and militarily, it made no sense for Saddam to transfer his weapons of mass destruction to Syria. Saddam worked on acquiring WMD for a reason: to stave off an invasion and hold on to power.
Just listen to a defeated Saddam for a second. In a post-invasion interview, Saddam admitted that he had been bluffing about his WMD. This is actually case-closed for the conspiracy theories about his weapons transfers.
But for a moment, let’s suppose that Saddam circumvented the most intrusive sanction regime the world has ever known and rebuilt his WMD programs after inspectors (and Israeli jets) destroyed them. His reasoning would have been deterrence — as Thomas Schelling put it, Saddam would have given his enemies a “threat that leaves something to chance.” That’s why the Assad regime threatens on and off to use WMD: It keeps the foreign hordes at bay. So why, with U.S. massing forces on his border, would Saddam give up the one thing he had to raise the cost of invading to the Americans?
Second, let’s say that Saddam wasn’t so concerned about the Americans — a miscalculation that Saddam seems to have made. That’s actually not a rationale for transferring weapons to Syria. Just like in 1991, he faced the collapse of his regime. Except back then, he slaughtered jubilant Shiites and used chemical weapons on the Kurds. Why, in 2003, would Saddam give up the worst threat he could make against his people?
Third, the Iraqi Ba’athists and Syrian Ba’athists are far from allies. Syria’s Allawites are minority Shiites and proxies to Iraq’s arch-enemy Iran. They fought on the allied side against Iraq during Desert Storm. Why would Saddam turn over his deadliest weapons Iran’s best friend in the region? Remember: Saddam says he made his WMD threats to cower the Iranians.
Fourth, from a U.S. military perspective, the transfer would have been impossible to hide. I worked at U.S. Central Command’s Mideast headquarters before, during, and after the invasion, which gave me a good understanding of what was going on at the time. The region was blanketed by U.S. military assets. Operation Enduring Freedom was in full swing in Afghanistan, and Operations Northern and Southern Watch were still in place over Iraq. If something moved — like, say a convoy of Winnebagos of Death heading for Syria — it could be detected and killed.
For example, as the clock ticked down on President Bush’s deadline for Saddam and his sons to leave Iraq, the dictator was detected at Dora Farms. The U.S. was able to scramble F-117s over Baghdad and bomb Dora Farms with impunity as the clock ran out. If Saddam were moving his allegedly massive stockpile to Syria, it would have been impossible to hide from the United States. A convoy of illicit material moving through the Western desert would have been a perfect target: the U.S. could strike it from the air; and then insert teams on the ground to take forensic samples of the material.
Do you think anyone in the administration or the military would have turned down the chance to justify the war before it started? Further, does anyone honestly think that if the Bush administration had good evidence that the material was somehow making its way into Syria, it wouldn’t have acted? Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was threatening Assad almost as soon as U.S. troops reached Baghdad.
As tragic as the decision to invade Iraq was, I’m not making any apologia for Saddam’s brutal regime. Had there been no invasion and the sanctions somehow lifted, I believe he would have been back in the WMD game quickly. He retained a cadre of scientists, machinery and other latent capability to do it. But in this case, sanctions, inspections and containment worked.
Not that you’ll hear that if Assad uses his weapons. You’ll hear TV talking heads mumbling about how we now know where Saddam’s WMD went, amplified by ignorant blog posts and tweets. Even Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, has flirted with this long-debunked theory. The truth is that Syria has had chemical weapons programs for decades. Keep that in mind if Assad actually puts it to use.