The good news is that these two processes are already underway. Syria’s neighbors have been conducting contingency planning with the U.S. and the international community over the past few months. A U.S.-led military exercise involving 12,000 troops from 17 different countries was held in Jordan in May, included planning for fighting in contaminated environments. Jordan and Turkey have been cooperating closely with the U.S. in carrying out other military exercises that involve securing chemical weapons in Syria or stopping them at their borders. Governmental task forces with direct input to the Prime Minister’s office have been set up in Turkey to analyze possible scenarios and has shared its findings with other regional states through the U.S. Israel has made it clear that any loss of government control over any of the stockpile, including intentionally passing them on to non-state actors in the region, would lead to massive military action. In fact, it has been reported that Israel has already sought Jordan’s approval for airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities. And only yesterday, NATO approved the deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey (nominally) in response to the growing threat from Syria’s chemical weapons and non-chemical warheads, albeit, it should be noted that the missile defense system would be less effective against aircraft and useless against artillery-delivery.
But the most important action that can be taken at the moment is to establish a strong deterrence posture to dissuade Assad from using his chemical weapons. The U.S. and Israel have both made strong unilateral statements, including one from President Obama stating: ” I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. (…) The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” European leaders, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed these statements.
When making her own statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “…I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics [about] what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons…But suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.” In fact, the international community should not hesitate to further clarify exactly what action will be taken in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In addition, a unified statement from all of Assad’s neighbors, and the U.S. and EU should be delivered restating these powers’ redlines. It would be particularly effective if countries normally supportive of Assad, such as Russia — who has already tried reasoning with Assad on the issue — and Iran (who is a victim and vocal critic of chemical weapons), could help Assad think twice about pushing the red button on his weapons of last resort.
Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate in the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).