Fear that Syria will resort to the unthinkable is not so far-fetched. The international community must be clear in defining its "redline."
The last several days have seen a dramatic rise in tension over the possibility that Syria’s embattled President Bashar Al-Assad might resort to using chemical weapons as the tide of the country’s civil war turns increasingly against him. But before we get carried away, it is important to note that the situation is far from clear.
Given the latest developments in Syria, fear that Assad will resort to these weapons is not unreasonable. Pressure must be mounting for Syria’s ruler, as the rebels advance and his army proves increasingly unable to push them back. Logic dictates that if Assad truly fears for his survival, then the use of his most potent weapon may not be so far-fetched.
But on the other hand, we should measure our alarm. A reckless assumption that Assad will use chemical weapons could get us in all sorts of trouble – remember what happened in Iraq?
What do we actually know?
It has been reported that Syria is moving chemical weapons precursors in a way that is inconsistent – although we are not told in what way – with merely moving them from one facility to another or securing them (one reason for moving stockpiles). The implication is that Syria is getting ready to deploy them. Wired's Danger Room reports that “Engineers working for the Assad regime in Syria have begun combining the two chemical precursors needed to weaponize sarin gas,” according to “an American official with knowledge of the situation.” This is significant because under normal circumstances the precursors are stored separately. At the time, speaking about the weaponization of the chemical weapons, Danger Room’s source did add that, “They didn't do it on the whole arsenal, just a modest quantity…. We're not sure what's the intent." Other reports, also citing unnamed U.S. officials, said that the preparations were being carried out at multiple locations.
These reports have not been confirmed. When questioned about their stance on Syria’s chemical weapons, the French Foreign Minister urged caution, as did some in Israel, stating that this could be a bluff to dissuade the West from supporting the opposition. The lack of detail in these allegations, although potentially for security reasons, makes it difficult to know exactly what is going on. After all, intelligence assessments are tricky things, and if this one is genuine, it still may or may not be right.
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