Q: A former Commander of British Navy CBRN Forces wrote recently that in Syria an 80% solution to the chemical weapons destruction problem is “good enough” and that seeking perfection is essentially a fool’s errand. Is 80% acceptable? And is the international mandate really to eradicate Syria’s weapons–or simply to make using them again politically untenable?
A: 80 percent is better than nothing but not good enough. The inventory of chemical weapons Syria had was so large that 20 percent would still be a very high absolute number. Keeping them would give the Assad regime a potent reserve to use in extremis, and continued bargaining leverage.
The purpose of the diplomatic deal to get rid of the weapons was, for Syria, Iran, and Russia, to prevent American military intervention; for the United States the purpose was mainly to get the Obama administration off the hook for deciding not to intervene after facing domestic opposition. The international mandate will dissuade Assad from using the weapons unless he fears imminent defeat, but not if he does.
—Richard K. Betts is the director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and the director of the International Security Policy Program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.