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.
There is no doubt either that the US received some credible intelligence about the movement of these weapons last week, raising alarm in Washington and western capitals. We have a firm statement from Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, on Monday. “There is no doubt that we have an increased concern about this,” he said.
That said, there are reasons to be cautious about anything happening imminently. First, as Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Service Institute argues, it is unlikely that the precursors for chemical weapons have been mixed and have been placed in a bomb awaiting some future order. “Once you mix precursors for chemical weapons, the bomb has to go, it’s very dangerous to leave them lying around for long. Chemical weapons go through a multi-stage arming process and it may be that some very early steps have been taken. But it does not mean a bomb is ready or that a decision has been taken to fire.”
Mr Joshi also has a second reason for playing down the sense of worry. “If there was real concern in the White House about the imminent use of chemical weapons in Syria, you would be seeing a lot more activity by US forces in Jordan and by the Israelis,” he says. “But there is nothing we have seen in terms of military movements around Syria that is not routine.”
One other factor should also be taken into consideration. As they look through possible scenarios in the conflict, the worry of some western officials and experts is not that Mr Assad will use these weapons but that they will be lost to militant and jihadist groups in the course of the fighting.
According to one senior western official, the use of weapons by the Assad regime is not impossible but unlikely. In the kind of complex urban insurgency which the Assad regime is fighting, dropping a bomb of chemical weapons would be an imprecise operation with limited effect, says the official. But it would be a guaranteed game changer in terms of triggering western intervention to depose the regime. “Assad would do this if he was absolutely desperate and within days of being toppled but that is not the situation right now,” says the official.
What is far more likely instead is that these weapons will fall into the hands of militant groups. A few weeks back, the New York Times reported that Hezbollah militants, closely allied to Iran, were training near some of the chemical weapons sites. Meanwhile there is concern in western intelligence agencies about the growing role in the opposition forces of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda linked front whose tactics are similar to those used by jihadists in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. One western intelligence official suggests that the number of fighters al-Nusra now has in the Syrian conflict “runs into four figures, we’re talking thousands.”
If there is a lesson we can draw from recent conflicts in the Middle East, it is that the fall of dictators subsequently sees weapons dispersed across the region. As Charles P Blair pointed out in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists earlier this year:
“…during Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 330 metric tons of military-grade high explosives vanished from Iraq’s Al-Qaqaa military installation….Forensic tests later revealed that some of these military-grade explosives were subsequently employed against US and coalition forces.”
An even worse dispersal of weapons happened after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year. As this article in Foreign Affairs points out, after the fall of Gaddafi:
“Libyan man-portable air-defence systems (or, Manpads), rocket-propelled grenades, SAM-7 missiles, and other sophisticated weaponry have made their way into the hands of al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which is based on the Algerian border in northern Mali.”
In short, the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in extremis cannot be completely excluded. But it is almost inevitable that in the course of this civil war some of the Syrian regime forces guarding these stocks of Weapons of Mass Destruction will desert their posts. Tony Blair, when Britain’s prime minister, frequently predicted that terrorist groups would one day get hold of WMD. In the Syrian conflict, that could become a serious possibility.