The Other WMD Threat
Image Credit: Flickr / Thierry Ehrmann

The Other WMD Threat

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As the world continues to debate if or when Iran will attempt to develop nuclear weapons – and what could happen if the Unites States and/or Israel strike – Iran’s closest ally in the region likely already has weapons of mass destruction.

Syria, in what many characterize as a response to the Middle East’s worse kept military secret, namely a highly capable Israeli nuclear weapons program, seems to have developed a stockpile of chemical weapons and the means to deploy them.  And with Syria in chaos, such weapons only make for a potentially deadlier regional situation.

As U.S. Sen. John McCain announces his support for air strikes against Syria, President Barack Obama has reportedly asked military advisors for “preliminary military options.” But with talk mounting of arming the Free Syrian Army, all such chatter must be viewed through the lens of Damascus’s WMD capabilities.

Several weeks ago, the U.S. State Department began coordinating with Syria's neighbors to organize the handling of Syria’s WMD if the regime collapsed. According to a widely cited report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Syria “has chemical weapons, and most experts believe it has mustard agents and at least ordinary nerve gas. It may have persistent nerve gas as well. It is believed to have cluster warheads for delivering chemical weapons, and it probably has chemical bombs and rocket warheads as well. It may have chemical artillery shells.”

The report also mentioned Iranian assistance in Syria’s chemical weapons program: “There are other reports that Syria has benefited from sales and technology transfers from Iran. Some reports indicate that Syria is undertaking an innovative chemical warfare (CW) program in cooperation with Iran.”

So, would Syria use such weapons against its own people – or another nation – if the regime felt collapse was imminent?

Before the outbreak of violence, most commentators argued the most likely scenario of use would be in conflict with Israel.  In its report, CSIS noted “Various experts have postulated that Syria could use its chemical and possibly biological weapons against Israel or any other neighbor in range as terror weapons and see them as at least a partial deterrent to Israeli strikes with weapons of mass destruction in anything other than an existential conflict.”

It’s hard to imagine a situation where Syria would actually take the step of using WMDs. However, as the demonstrations against the Assad regime continue, and with Iran locked into a daily war of words with the West over its nuclear program, tensions are high across the region. With Damascus immune to international condemnation of its brutal crackdown on opposition, there’s simply no guarantee the regime wouldn’t resort to such weapons.

 Indeed, a recent reportfrom the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted: “While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents, unlike many of their Libyan counterparts, are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being ‘hijacked’ by jihadists.” 

The piece ominously declares: “Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.”

Could U.S. forces launch attacks to destroy such weapons if the possibility of WMD use seemed likely?  While air strikes are possible against chemical weapons facilities, such attacks could discharge potentially dangerous toxic plumes that would threaten nearby civilians.  Bombing would be a “desperate and dangerous means to prevent proliferation” and may prove deadly.

It seems clear that while the United States and its allies are rightly concerned about the possibility that Iran could develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon, Syria may prove to be a challenge all its own if the situation spirals further out of control.

Testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered a sobering assessment of the situation confronting the United States: “The fundamental issue that is before us is whether or not the United States will go in and act unilaterally in that part of the world, and engage in another war in the Muslim world unilaterally. Or whether or not we will work with others in determining what action we take.” Chemical weapons make such tough decisions that much harder.

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