On December 3, intelligence reports claimed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was combining chemicals to create sarin nerve agents, as well as moving parts of his large chemical weapons stockpile.
In response, the United States has specified “red lines” for Syrian use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, nearly the entire international community has condemned and warned against the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.
For years, Assad has been well aware of the international trepidation concerning his massive chemical weapons program. In July, a Syrian government spokesperson addressed this concern, stating that Syria’s chemical weapons would only be used in the case of foreign aggression. The validity of such statement is now under extreme scrutiny. If Assad were faced with the immediate threat of defeat, would he use his weapons against his own people?
Dan Trombly argues that regimes fighting for survival do not tend to employ chemical weapons. Historically, he postulates, chemical weapons have been used by regimes from positions of strength, not as last-ditch efforts. Syria, however, is a departure from typical models of warfare because of the rebels’ dual role as both citizens and aggressors. This is why recent talk of consequences and possible military action were necessary, in theory, to deter a chemical weapons attack by an unpredictable Assad regime.
One senior military defector from the Syrian government believes that if the rebels were to take the city of Aleppo, Assad would be driven to use chemical weapons. Other defectors doubt Assad’s logistic capabilities to execute such an attack. But these are not the only options available to Assad. In a stint of desperation, he could launch the weapons, but he could also transfer them to Lebanese terrorist group, Hezbollah, who have a history of close ties with the Assad regime. Allegedly, Assad has already transferred to the extremist group Scud missiles capable of launching chemical weapons.
Generally, chemical weapons are kept separate from delivery mechanisms. For this reason, in the absence of credible assurance from the Syrian government, any movement of the weapon stockpile can be extremely threatening. In addition to their sarin gas supply, Syria allegedly possesses the blistering mustard gas, a non-lethal chemical used for military and suppression activities as well as deadly VX nerve agents.
Syria is believed to have the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world. As it is, there is valid uncertainty that the Syrian government can maintain control over such hazardous material while in the midst of a civil war. Once Assad falls, which looks increasingly likely, the security of the arsenal would be undermined during the transition. This is a serious danger, but can hopefully be mitigated with outside assistance.
Syria is one of five states that has yet to sign or ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans the development, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. When new leadership is in place in Damascus, the international community should work vigilantly to ensure Syria is committed to reducing the dangers of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Perhaps a new Syria would be willing to engage in a practical discussion of a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East.