A Chemical (Weapon) Reaction

by KYLE SHIDELER August 10, 2012

On July 23rd, a spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, Jihad Makdisi, issued a public statement warning that the Syrian regime would utilize its long suspected, but officially denied, arsenal of chemical and biological weapons if faced with "external aggression," while at the same time issuing the statement that they would never be used against the Syrian people, even those currently in rebellion. Those words came as the Assad regime suffered from a series of major setbacks, which included a suicide bombing which killed several key regime leaders, followed by an outbreak of heavy fighting in the Syrian capital of Damascus and the regime stronghold of Aleppo.

The statement was, predictably, widely condemned, but only brings into sharper focus concerns regarding Syria's weapons stockpile which have been gathering since July 13th, when U.S. officials warned that Syria had begun moving its chemical weapons.  Sources speaking to the Wall Street Journal said they believed the weapons remained under Assad's control, while Defense Department sources speaking with Fox News warned that local Syrian army commanders may have been responsible for moving the weapons.  Questions abound about what role the weapons might play, ranging from a threat to prevent outside intervention, to their being used to engage in ethnic cleansing to aid in carving out an Alawite-dominated rump-state along the coast. One defector, General Mustapha Sheikh allegedly declared that Assad meant to "burn the country" in retaliation for the high-profile suicide bombing which killed major regime leaders, including Assad's brother-in-law. Other reports from the Free Syrian Army have suggested that the weapons may be moving towards airports at the borders, although the veracity of those claims is suspect.

Obviously movement in Syria's weapons of mass destruction arsenal is worrying to all interested parties, but it is of special concern for the Israelis, for whom the Syrian chemical arsenal has always been intended to deter and intimidate. For the Israelis, the issue of greatest concern is the possibility that such weapons may be transferred to Hezbollah, a possibility which the Israelis have called a "red line" which would provoke a "harsh" response. As the situation continues to deteriorate for Assad, the prospect of Israeli action could be an inducement.  But given the fierce resistance to Assad from both the Syrian Sunni community and regional Sunni powers, it is unlikely that a Saddam Hussein-style attempt to provoke the Israelis into action in order to shatter the international consensus will have the intended effect.

Unfortunately analysis is not as straight forward a science as the chemistry which created Assad's arsenal. But, there are a potent cocktail of potential outcomes which are worth preparing for.

Despite their protests to the contrary, Syria could use chemical weapons against the rebels, the Syrian population in general, or against a neighboring state (most likely Israel with Jordan a close second).  Such a move could come either under Assad's direction or in localized cases, as regional commanders become desperate to push back the growing rebellion. On a small scale, use of the weapons is likely to provoke severe condemnation and the abandonment by Syria of its remaining key ally, Russia, particularly since Russia has received assurances from Syria that the weapons were contained, and no nation likes being embarrassed after having made public assurances. If used on a large scale, the probability of Western military intervention would increase dramatically. Given these negative outcomes for Assad, the likelihood of an official authorization to use chemical weapons, either domestically or against Israel, seems unlikely as long as there remains any possibility of Assad remaining in power.

Even if the weapons are not used, they remain exceedingly dangerous.  The possibility exists of an authorized transfer of chemical weapons from the regime to Hezbollah, as the Israelis fear. Syria has always been the primary supplier for Hezbollah, and Syria has previously transferred Scud missiles capable of delivering chemical weapons to the Lebanese terror group. While the Syrian regime has had ties to other terror groups, including Al Qaeda, given the anti-Assad stance taken by most jihadist groups, Hezbollah remains the most likely recipient of such weapons if they are transferred by the regime itself.   

Alternatively, there is the possibility of individual commanders attempting to move the weapons to terror groups, including Al Qaeda, motivated either by ideology or in order to raise funds for a comfortable exile if the regime falls. In many ways this is a more dangerous possibility because Western intelligence among the various jihadist groups now active in Syria is limited.  On the other hand, Israel almost certainly dedicates extensive resources to tracking shipments to Hezbollah already and would be more likely to detect a weapons transfer there.

Even if the regime or its followers do not exploit Assad's chemical weapons, it remains perfectly possible that the opposition or elements within it may. Just as anti-air missiles and other dangerous conventional weapons went missing in Libya following Qaddafi's fall, the prospect exists for a similar arms "fire sale" in Syria if/when the regime falls.

In order to prevent the worst outcomes, several actions need to be taken. One, the West (and the United States in particular) must be absolutely credible in its deterrence towards the Syrian regime.  In no uncertain terms, it must be made clear to Assad that the consequences of either using or proliferating these weapons will be overwhelming.  To an extent, the Obama administration has done a decent job on this front, although as Assad's position deteriorates, it becomes increasingly difficult because he has less and less to lose.  The second is to take steps to acquire or destroy Syria's chemical arsenal. Offers of immunity and financial incentives can be offered to regime members, or opposition militias, who agree to turn over chemical stockpiles to the West to be destroyed. If all else fails, military action to destroy such weapons may become necessary, although this is less than ideal, since it may either provoke a "use it or lose it" response from Assad or  lead to an accidental dispersal of chemical agents if air strikes are used. Most likely, planning for both options is heavily classified and already underway. But if not, they should begin in earnest immediately.

Finally, warnings need to go out to other regimes beside Assad's, most particularly Iran, to make clear that they ultimately will be held responsible for the use of chemical weapons by any of their proxy forces or terrorist groups.  Such deterrence requires utter certainty, on the part of the terror sponsor, that a chemical weapons terrorist attack would mean the end of their regime for good.

When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, there are frequently no good choices. Making the best of a bad situation means acting decisively and with clarity of purpose. Given the Libya example (among others), it is fair to say these traits have not been the hallmark of the Obama Administration to date. Even so, when it comes to Syria's chemical weapons, there is every incentive to get it right, and no room for error. 

Kyle Shideler is the director of the Counterterrorism Education and Analysis Project at the Center for Security Policy (centerforsecuritypolicy.org).   


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