Regime Change: Helping or Hurting Nonproliferation?

By: Alan Ahn

The last time the term “regime change” had significance in the minds of the American public was during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ostensibly, one of the primary purposes of the campaign was to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

Nearly a decade later, regime change in the form of the Arab Spring has again caught America’s attention. However, the recent challenges to despotic governments throughout the Middle East may present a greater proliferation threat than was ever posed by Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

For instance, Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi had long pursued weapons of mass destruction, including a futile attempt to develop a nuclear program. With his removal from power in Libya, there have been worries about the security of the chemical weapons he had stockpiled during his reign.

However, the country that has created the greatest concern about the possibility of loose WMDs is Syria. The Assad regime maintains a tenuous hold on power; despite brutal crackdowns on dissent that have drawn international outrage, the wave of popular discontent in Syria remains strong. Should Assad lose hold over the country, we could see a breakdown in controls over Syrian chemical weapons, as recently reported by the Washington Post. According to the article, while Libya’s chemical arsenal was mostly obsolete and nonoperational at the time of Gaddafi’s downfall, Syria “possesses some of the deadliest chemicals ever to be weaponized, dispersed in thousands of artillery shells and warheads that are easy to transport.” The Syrian cache is reported to include deadly nerve agents such as sarin, tabun, and VX.

Perhaps most troubling in Syria’s case is the Assad government’s ties to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Although a deliberate transfer of chemical weapons to such groups is considered unlikely, instability in Syria increases the likelihood that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists through theft or sale by rogue elements.

Although the US should not necessarily support the continuation of dictatorial regimes, the fact that leaders like Assad have turned to WMD development makes regime change in such countries problematic. Essentially, WMDs have become a hedge against the fragility of authoritarian government – even if domestic control is threatened, outside powers have to think twice about officially encouraging anti-regime elements. It is likely that chemical weapons have been a factor in America’s reluctance to take a stronger stance against the Assad regime.

It is ironic that although regime change was once viewed as a means to get rid of WMDs, WMDs now act as a life preserver for regimes vulnerable to instability. Experts consider countries such as Iran and North Korea to be even larger proliferation risks should those regimes collapse or lose control. This dilemma both highlights the importance of nonproliferation for international peace, and compels the US to address this issue in a timely fashion.