William Polk on Syria: What Now?

By William Polk

Two weeks ago today, just after President Obama made his surprising and very welcome decision to seek Congressional approval before launching strikes on Syria, I posted a very long analysis by William R. Polk of the stakes, opportunities, risks, and alternatives in dealing with Syria. Despite its length it was for many days our most frequently read item about the choices the Congress, the president, and the public faced.

Polk, who first wrote about Iraq for the Atlantic in the later 1950s, and who served on the State Department's Policy Planning staff during the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, has just written another long analysis of the choices and contradictions ahead. Like the previous one, it is organized as a set of questions and answers. Also like the earlier installment, it is worth reading when you have time to go through it all.

A word on formatting: Polk wrote this with a large number of bottom-of-the-page reference notes, which provided source-details for or elaborated on points he was making. There's no easy way to reproduce the bottom-of-page effect on a website. So for now I have (with Polk's permission) omitted the notes that were strictly source references, and converted the major explanatory notes to end-of-paragraph bracketed* comments. Later I might be able to put up a list of his sources. Now over to William Polk.  [* Like this.]   

By William R. Polk

Reflections on the Syrian Chemical Weapons Issue and Beyond

Because so much of the information and comment in the media, particularly in America, is fragmentary, diffuse and even contradictory, I thought it might be useful to attempt to put together a more coherent account of how we interpret what we now know. Since most of the focus in government pronouncements and the media is on weapons and their use, I will here provide notes on (1) weapons’ variety, their characteristics, their cost and their availability; (2)  a short history of chemical weapons;  (3)  the Russian intervention;  (4)  why the Syrians have accepted the Russian proposal;  (5) the prospects for  ridding the area of the weapons of mass destruction; (6)  the possibility of ending the civil war;  (7)  who the Insurgents are and what they want;  and  (8)  predictable results of a collapse of the Syrian state.


  1. The Variety of Weapons and Their Characteristics

Three sorts of weapons figure in the Syrian conflict:  the first are  “conventional” light and heavy weapons:  rifles, machineguns, grenades and artillery.* They have done most of the killing in the civil war.  Of an estimated 100,000 casualties, they have killed over 99 in each 100.  Perhaps the best guess on who the casualties were comes from an Non-Governmental Organization based in London, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  It finds that 21,850 rebels fighters, 27,654 regular army soldiers, 17,824 militia fighters and about 40,000 civilians have been killed as of September this year.

[*I leave aside land mines as they do not appear to have been used in the Syrian conflict. of them, the so-called  improvised explosive device (IED) was first reported in use by Afghan tribesmen in the 19th century and is common in guerrilla warfare.  A more sophisticated version was laid by the British and German armies during the Second World War  Unlike other conventional weapons, it is “passive;”  that is, it can “lie in wait” for a footfall for decades.  .  In North Africa alone it was believed to have killed about 20,000 people.]

So far unused but prominent in any political calculation are nuclear weapons which are known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  So far they are possessed only by Israel with which country Syria is at war.  The third category of weapons, also regarded as WMD are chemical weapons.  They figure in the inventory of several states including both Syria and Israel.    These weapons are made of various forms of gas (mustard,  which causes severe burns, and the nerve gases, Sarin, VX and perhaps others).

Weapons of Mass destruction are characterized by several common features.  The first is that there is no effective means of protection from them.  At the top end,  a nuclear weapon, delivered by rocket or jet airplane cannot be detected or reliably disabled before reaching its target.   Some chemical weapons do not even have to be delivered: they can be carried (as they were in the First World War) by wind or allowed simply to escape where they are to take effect.  Gas masks were fabricated to guard against them over a century ago, but they offer only limited protection.  Some gas compounds, particularly Sarin, can contaminate clothing and remain lethal long after the person removes the mask.  Against white phosphorous, a particularly horrible form of napalm*,  there is no effective means of defense if the person is in the open. [*The American army used both napalm and white phosphorous extensively in Vietnam and Iraq.  The photograph of a still burning young girl running down the road had the same effect on Americans in the 1960s and 1970s as the sight of gassed children in Syria this year, a feeling of revulsion.  US Secretary of State John Kerry called it “obscene.”]

The second common feature of  chemical weapons of mass destruction is that their impact is dramatic.  Even threat of their use spreads terror not only among intended targets but among the population of wide areas.  This feature is heightened by the fact that unintended victims usually have no warning.    All weapons of mass destruction are horrible, but they vary widely in cost and effectiveness.  Nuclear weapons are the most expensive and not only can kill all life in a given area but also leave behind contamination that can kill or maim those who survived the initial attack for decades or more.   Even “lesser” nuclear weapons such as depleted uranium shell casing are believed to have resulted in greatly increased cases of cancer.  So far as I have been able to find out,  depleted uranium has not yet been used in Syria, but such shells are known to be in the inventory of some of the armies.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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