Is Syria a nuclear target?
The short answer is yes. The long answer, however, is a bit more complicated.
In the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review the United States declared that it would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are in good standing with the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the NPR:
the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing “negative security assurance” by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. This revised assurance is intended to underscore the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT and persuade non-nuclear weapon states party to the Treaty to work with the United States and other interested parties to adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. In making this strengthened assurance, the United States affirms that any state eligible for the assurance that uses chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response – and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable.
As reports continue to trickle in about the potential use of Syrian chemical weapons, the language in the posture review is particularly important. Before the publication of the 2010 NPR, the United States retained a policy of strategic ambiguity and refused to rule out the use of U.S. nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological weapons attack on the U.S. or one of its allies. The 2010 NPR clarified the U.S. position, but did allow the U.S. to continue targeting non-nuclear weapons states in noncompliance with their nonproliferation requirements. Syria, which is accused of clandestinely constructing a nuclear reactor, is not considered to be in compliance with its nonproliferation commitments. Thus, it has not been granted a “negative security assurance” and is included in the U.S. nuclear plans. (Iran and the DPRK are likely to be the other non-nuclear weapons states* included in U.S. nuclear planning. This assumes that U.S. has targeting plans for all noncompliant countries, which may or may not be the case. U.S. official statements on this are vague)
Turkey, as readers of the blog already know, is home to 60-70 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons that are slated for delivery by Turkish and American F-16s. While a nuclear strike on Syria would probably use long-range missiles (more on this in a minute), NATO retains the option to carry out the nuclear strike should the Supreme Commander of the Allies in Europe (SACEUR) give the order. Does anybody think either of these scenarios is really a possibility? . . . . I didn’t think so.
Nuclear weapons are so horrific, it is nearly impossible to come up with a scenario for their use. Moreover, American conventional capabilities are so strong, and states like Syria and Iran so comparably weak, the caveats for the U.S. negative security assurance** do not appear to be credible. Does anybody think that Bashar is sitting in his bunker worrying about the threat of a U.S. or NATO nuclear strike? . . . Again, I didn’t think so.
Bashar remains concerned, by all accounts, of external intervention and would very much like to keep the U.S. out of the conflict. Thus, Syrian chemical weapons are only expected to be used as a last resort. The threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation, should a chemical artillery shell stray over the Turkish, Lebanese, or Jordanian border is unlikely to deter a desperate Assad. The only credible threat, as articulated by the frequent U.S. referrals to “red lines”, is the assured use of an overwhelming American led conventional response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons. Moreover, the U.S. and Israel are also using the media to tell Bashar that they will not wait for the use of chemical weapons, but will take action if intelligence indicates that their use is imminent. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where U.S. intelligence assets (drones, satellites, human) begin to witness the preparations for the launch of Syrian Scuds. If the threat is deemed credible, one can imagine a U.S. air strike on the missiles while they are being fueled and still on the ground.
However, one must be careful in putting all of one’s faith in the United States’ ability to detect and to know where every Syrian missile is (They are mobile after all and Syria is a big country). Thus, a country like Turkey, which is in range of Syrian missiles, has taken the prudent step of asking for Patriot missile defenses. Nuclear weapons, and the absence of a U.S. negative security assurance, really don’t factor into any credible scenario involving strikes on Syrian chemical weapons and facilities. The U.S. simply has other weapons that can get the job done.
Moreover, the U.S. conventional threat is more credible, thus making it a more credible deterrent. This speaks to a larger point about the obsolescence of nuclear weapons. The scenarios for their use are so small, that one has to ask why the U.S. and Russia retain such large nuclear stockpiles. Moreover, people should be asking why NATO states like Turkey maintain its ardent support for the forward deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons. The resources for maintaining these weapons could be spent elsewhere and the scenarios for their use are almost non-existent. While in Turkey they remain a useful psychological reassurance for a leadership wary of accepting American extended deterrence at face value, their actual military utility is non-existent. Even in the almost unthinkable event of American nuclear weapons use, the B61 would not likely be used. The Syrian crisis simply drives home a point that has been known for decades – nuclear weapons have no military value and the only feasible scenario for their use remains in response to a nuclear attack. Thus, the United States has little to lose by extending its negative security assurance to all non-nuclear weapons states.
*The NPT defines the official nuclear weapons states as those that tested a nuclear device before 1 January 1967.
** A negative security assurance is a guarantee not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state.