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Official: U.S. Approach to Syria 'Consistent' With Counter-WMD Strategy

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Workers in protective clothing at a Munster, Germany, company involved in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, as seen in March. A senior U.S. defense official said U.S. policy toward Damascus is "consistent" with a new Pentagon strategy for countering weapons of mass destruction worldwide. Workers in protective clothing at a Munster, Germany, company involved in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, as seen in March. A senior U.S. defense official said U.S. policy toward Damascus is "consistent" with a new Pentagon strategy for countering weapons of mass destruction worldwide. (Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)

A senior Defense Department official on Monday said the U.S. approach to the conflict in Syria has been "consistent" with a just-updated Pentagon strategy for countering weapons of mass destruction.

The White House last Thursday moved to bolster aid to Syrian rebels just days after Damascus finished relinquishing its chemical arms.

At a Pentagon press conference, the senior official -- speaking on condition of not being named -- was asked whether the juxtaposition in the Syria case might someday make other rogue leaders think twice about giving up their nuclear, chemical or biological arms.

"I feel that our effort -- and the entire effort -- to eliminate Syria's declared chemical weapons stockpile is consistent from this [strategy]," the official said. "We've taken the ideas as we've been developing the strategy, and we've been applying it to the Syria problem. So it's actually been an iterative experience."

The figure did not elaborate specifically on any ramifications of the timing of bolstered aid to rebels, but alluded broadly to some of the complexities involved.

"This is a countering-WMD strategy," the official said. "It's not a regional strategy. It won't solve problems outside of the WMD lane.

"Our goal there is to try to take the WMD problems, reduce them, eliminate them where we can, take them off the table wherever possible, so that we can get about the business of solving other problems," the senior official added.

Last Monday, an international coalition announced it had completed the removal of approximately 1,300 metric tons of chemical-warfare materials from the Mideast country. President Bashar Assad's regime agreed last year to hand over the stockpile, following a nerve-gas attack near Damascus that killed hundreds and spurred talk of Washington's direct intervention in the Syrian civil war.

The new Defense Department "Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction," released Monday afternoon, replaces 2006 Pentagon guidance for combating these most sensitive arms around the globe.

It emphasizes taking a wider range of preventive actions aimed at reducing and mitigating WMD threats earlier, rather than grappling militarily with crises after they occur. The senior official said the approach is already being implemented, but the document should help to guide planning and investments going forward.

"What steps can we take earlier, as we often say, 'left of the problem, left of crisis, left of boom, left even of acquisition, left of a country actually acquiring a capability'?" the official said in describing the planning approach that the new strategy seeks to inspire. "What can we bring to bear to shape that environment?"

In the event that non-state actors seize control over weapons of mass destruction somewhere around the globe -- as some fear could occur someday in Pakistan, North Korea or elsewhere -- the Pentagon would pursue "rapid and decisive action," according to the new strategy.

Under such a scenario, the Defense Department "will act in coordination with partners whenever possible, but will act unilaterally if necessary," the document states.

The senior Defense official on Monday rejected the idea that the strategy lays the groundwork for "pre-emptive" action to counter weapons of mass destruction, while noting that the U.S. president always retains such options.

The updated strategy puts "a focus on prevention and a focus on taking steps to make sure that risks don't fully emerge," the official said. "I would not in any way correlate that to any presumption on use of force."

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