Since the start of this month, there has been a spate of stories in the western media about the possibility that the Assad regime is about to use chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria. The stories – most of which have been briefed by US intelligence officials to the American print and broadcast media – have been alarming. As the Assad regime comes under increasing pressure, there are fears that it might use some of its stocks of sarin in a last-ditch demonstration that it is determined to hang onto power. The Obama administration has again asserted that it would see the use of such weapons as the crossing of a red line that triggers US intervention in the conflict.
Anyone trying to bring together the steady stream of news stories on this issue is left with a somewhat murky picture. Some have suggested that the military has loaded chemical weapons into bombs and is awaiting the order from the regime to drop them on rebel groups.
Others have suggested that the precursors for sarin gas have been mixed and could be ready for use.
There is also one report that goes in the other direction and suggests the fears of US intelligence have eased.
What are we to make of it all ? The fact that Syria possesses chemical – and possibly biological – weapons is not in doubt. After years of obfuscation, the regime admitted to having chemical weapons stocks last summer. Most academic opinion is in no doubt that Syria possesses one of the largest arsenals in the world, one that was developed as a strategic deterrent against Israel.