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Historical method and international crises: weapons of mass destruction in Syria


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The methods, tools and approaches offered by the historian to analyse policy options are often neglected during debates on international crises. But they can be usefully applied to the debate about the prevention of further use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria. Following a US-Russia agreement, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council agreed recently on a resolution requiring Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The history of using military means to combat weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East indicates that the Obama Administration pursued the wiser option.

Analysing precedents

The history of conflict in the region should raise questions about the effectiveness of military strikes as a means of deterring the use of WMD. Military historians, including those who teach at defence academies such as West Point in America, gauge the viability of future military campaigns by examining past precedents. However obvious this exercise may seem, it is apparent that western politicians who authorised military action in Iraq and Afghanistan did not pay sufficient attention to history in these regions. By pursuing the diplomatic option, the US avoided the mistakes of the past when military means were employed to degrade a MD programme.

The precedent of the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the shortcomings of military strikes against WMD facilities. This six-week air campaign dropped more munitions on Iraq than were used during World War Two. Yet some of Iraq's WMD facilities remained intact and UN weapons inspectors spent years hunting for WMD munitions that survived the Gulf War.

The Israeli Air Force bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, but Iraqi documents reveal that this galvanised Saddam Hussein to acquire a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, an Israeli strike against a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 contributed to ending its nuclear programme. However, this abandonment was probably as much due to financial constraints.

Interpreting primary sources

The historical method, based on the interrogation and triangulation of primary sources, can identify the relative robustness of evidence of Syria’s WMD programme and what, if any, information or perspectives are lacking. It is important for historians to acknowledge the ‘silences’ in sources. Secondary sources are important but must be considered carefully. Historical precedent can contextualize the range of policy options, their relative feasibility and range of possible consequences.

The diplomatic response to Syria’s WMD prevented the US from acting in Syria based on an incomplete picture of what happened during the Ghouta attacks in August 2013. A vital question in the Syrian debate is who used chemical weapons and how to prove that? During his briefing to the UN in February 2003, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Secretary of State, Colin Powell played an intercepted phone conversation between Republican Guard commanders discussing the removal of weapons of mass destruction munitions. In the documentary, America vs. Iraq, shown on the National Geographic channel in August 2013, a Republican Guard commander said that while the intercepted conversation was genuine, the officers were referring to chemical equipment left over from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, not a current WMD programme. While this taped conversation was only a small part of the campaign to justify the Iraq war, it is significant because one piece of evidence that alleges the Syrian government was responsible for the Ghouta attack is an intercepted phone conversation between a Ministry of Defence official and the commander of a chemical weapons unit.

A historian would ask: when did the intercepted phone conversation take place? Who produced the document and who was the intended audience? Does the intercept reveal the identity of the speakers?

Applying this methodology to the Syrian case raise various issues: did the commander of the chemical weapons unit actually order a nerve agent attack? Were he and his colleagues acting on orders from the Syrian government? Or did the command structure of the Syrian military break down, leading individual field commanders to deploy such weapons without authorisation? Finally, historians must investigate whether the primary sources are genuine. How can we be certain that the taped phone conversation and other intelligence is not produced by the Syrian opposition, which includes defectors from the Syrian military?

While a military strike based on this limited intelligence has been avoided, these are questions that still need to be answered during the disarmament process. The OPCW’s mandate is to destroy Syria’s WMD stockpile; they will need to examine the Syrian state documents that reveal the chain of command over these weapons. The same questions a historian would ask of these documents offer weapons inspectors the analytical tools to better understand the Syrian state and its control over these munitions.

Interpreting secondary sources

The historian always distinguishes between primary and secondary sources. I found that written material on the size and scope of Syria’s programme in 2013 was derived from a set of secondary sources that rely on other secondary sources. A Swedish defence research agency report in 2004 revealed that some of the most cited secondary sources were produced by right-wing think tanks seeking to demonize Syria around the time of the 2003 Iraq War. There were several declassified primary intelligence documents on Iraq’s WMD programme but the only one I found on Syria is a declassified CIA assessment from 1985.

By agreeing to place its chemical weapons under international control the Syrian government must declare the size and scope of its WMD programme to the OPCW, which will verify this information from its new office in Damascus. The importance of transparency was highlighted by Syria's ability to construct a nuclear reactor beneath the radar of most western intelligence agencies.

If Iraq serves as an indication, President Bashar al-Assad might not be forthcoming in this matter. It is likely the US would put pressure on the OPCW for this information, which Syria would declare a violation of its sovereignty. The US would probably argue that Syria's Scud arsenal should be destroyed because these weapons can deliver WMDs over long distances. Damascus would be reluctant to do so since this is its only deterrent against Israel. While disarmament through inspections will be a complex process, the historical precedent demonstrates that it remains more effective than military strikes.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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