Syria’s Chemical Weapons – Foreshadowing a Nuclear Scenario?

With the real possibility of Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the security of their stockpiles in question, the comparison to a nuclear scenario is not hard to imagine.

In the past month, the civil war in Syria has deteriorated at an escalated pace. Adding to the chaos are reports that the Syrian government has been moving and mixing chemicals to prepare sarin and other nerve gases that are odorless, colorless, and can kill within minutes. As the regime with one of the world’s last large stockpiles of chemical weapons draws closer to collapse every day, these weapons become increasingly vulnerable to terrorists or rebel groups who would not hesitate to use them on both government forces and civilians.

This is a real threat. Defense contractors are already training Syrian rebels on how to secure the stockpiles so that in the event of the collapse of the government, the Syrian people can ensure that the chemical weapons will not be used. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made it clear that the U.S. would have a swift response to any use of chemical weapons in Syria, indicating that a chemical attack crosses a "red line". President Obama reiterated this point during a speech at the National Defense University in Washington saying, "I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command -- the world is watching."

Chemical weapons are terrible, inhumane weapons of mass casualty. As bad as the prospects in Syria are, however, they pale in comparison to a similar situation involving nuclear weapons.

The security around nuclear materials even in the most stable environment is not impenetrable. In July, three pacifists successfully broke into the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee, a plant where much of the highly enriched uranium in the U.S. is stored. Imagine the confusion and chaos in a collapsing state with nuclear weapons. The risk that nuclear materials, technology, and even weapons themselves may fall into the hands of terrorist groups only increases.  That risk is already alive and well in Pakistan and North Korea.

Pakistan is a country rife with conflict. Territorial disputes with neighbor India over Kashmir and conflicts between the government and Taliban troops continue to undermine security measures and create opportunities for terrorist groups to obtain nuclear materials. Its national institutions are weak, and it is often called “the most dangerous nation on Earth” because of this blend of nuclear capacity, internal strife, and poor infrastructure to manage crises. 

North Korea may be unified under the nationalistic control of Kim Jong-un, but the state is not without fissures.  Economic turmoil occurs often and the government itself, while “unified,” is also dangerously delicate.  Millions of North Koreans are starving, and China - the North’s only reliable lifeline - is becoming less willing to prop them up. The successful launch of a missile last week was a testament to the government’s continued persistence in developing nuclear weapons, even at the expense of the well-being of its citizens.  China’s main fear, a collapsing North, would bring with it the specter of “loose nukes” in a country where information is scarce. 

Ploughshares Fund is committed to reducing the risks from nuclear weapons worldwide.  As Syria deteriorates and we grapple with the massive harm that is likely to ensue if chemical weapons are released, the impending danger is a reminder about how vital it is to address similar risks in the nuclear arena.  The United States must take the lead in preventing states from acquiring nuclear weapons and materials while also ensuring that materials and weapons that already exist are secure.  Through grassroots efforts focused on conflict prevention and resolution, Ploughshares Fund seeks to bring more stability to nuclear states in order to prevent a nuclear problem similar to the chemical situation in Syria.

In the 1990s, Ploughshares Fund worked to eliminate the use of chemical weapons by partnering with organizations to put pressure on the Senate to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Now, we are working to do the same with nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are dangerous, expensive, outdated, and like chemical weapons, inhumane. By increasing dialogue between nations and taking pragmatic steps toward nuclear zero, we can eradicate the risks posed by a chaotic nuclear situation similar to the one in chemically-armed Syria.