In 2010, my friend, the late chemical and biological weapons expert Jonathan Tucker warned that the threat of chemical weapons had “all but disappeared from the radar screen of senior U.S. government policymakers, the news media, and the general public.”
Recent reports that the embattled government of Syria has begun preparations for the use of chemical weapons is a chilling and unwelcome confirmation of Jonathan’s foresight.
After two years of civil war and more than 40,000 deaths, events in Syria may be heading to a bloody crescendo.
Syria has long been considered the country with the most extensive chemical weapons program in the Middle East. The rationale for the program, begun decades ago, was to provide a poor man’s answer to Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. (Syria borders Israel, and the two fought major wars in 1967 and 1973.) The fear today is that deadly weapons will be used against Syria’s own population.
Will Syria kill thousands or even tens of thousands of its own people with these horrific weapons? Towards what end?
One possibility is that the Syrian government is using the threat of sarin for bargaining purposes. Perhaps President Bashar Assad is hoping he can gain negotiating leverage and work out a deal or at least win a graceful exit.
But even if one discounts Assad’s public statements that he intends to stay in Syria and fight to the death, his departure would do nothing about the elite military corps left behind who are in in charge of the chemical program — a group that is largely drawn from the minority Alawite community that has governed Syria with a bloody fist. Indeed, it is not even clear that Assad is actually calling the shots at this point.
The second and most likely reason for preparing chemical weapons is for use against advancing rebel forces, either as a way to gain military advantage or for the purpose of exacting final revenge before facing a violent demise. Unfortunately, the Syrian government might be able to convince itself — based on Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons to suppress rebels in Iraq — that it could employ a chemical arsenal to terrible effect and still stay in power.
A third unlikely but grim possibility is that facing certain death, Assad might seek to frame his historical “legacy” by using his chemical arsenal against Israel or others in the region, including U.S. troops. The logic here is simple but extreme: “If I’m going down, I’m taking as many as I can with me.”
If Assad simply suffers his just desserts, he will join a long line of Middle Eastern despots, who were deposed, executed and then forgotten. However, if he attacks Israel or U.S. targets, he could be remembered — according to this reasoning — as the man who stood up to the oppressors. Of course, the idea is fundamentally reprehensible, but it is not illogical, and a desperate man facing a certain and painful end might just grasp at that last horrific straw. The good news is that, historically, leaders — even murderous dictators — rarely follow this course of action.
The situation in Syria poses other dangers as well, particularly for Washington.
Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have publicly warned Syria not to use chemical weapons. But what is Washington willing to do exactly? Air strikes are feasible, but the bombing of chemical munitions might have the effect of sending some of the deadly agents into the air, causing civilian casualties. Still, the death toll from that scenario would be far smaller than allowing the Syrian government to use their chemical stockpiles in a deliberate attack.
The real problem with sending in the planes is that the U.S. would never know if they got the arsenal. It would also help Assad to reframe the civil war as a fight against the U.S. and make an attack on American targets fair game.
Alternatively, President Obama could send in the U.S. military to secure and remove the chemical arsenals, but this means that American troops would be fighting Syrian ground forces in the middle of a civil war. Logistically and politically putting boots on the ground would raise the stakes and create new possibilities for unintended and unwelcome consequences. If less than completely successful, any residual chemical weapons might be used against American targets.
The security and disposition of Syria’s chemical weapons is an issue for Washington even if the rebels win. As was the case in Libya, the Syrian opposition forces include foreign fighters and religious extremists. The rebels could defeat the regime, take control of the chemical weapons, and extremist elements within the victor’s camp might use them for their own violent purposes, be it attacks against Israel or operations against the U.S.
The specter of chemical attacks in Syria underlines the importance of pushing forward with a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, an international initiative that is currently stalled because Israel has refused to participate.
Jonathan Tucker warned us that it was a mistake to forget about chemical weapons, and now as the world focuses on Iran, it would be a mistake to forget about countries that already have nuclear weapons. One of the lessons of Syria is there is an urgent need to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles before the world has to confront these problems all over again.