Securing Syria’s WMD

Syria is widely believed to have chemical weapons. But the U.S. will need to tread carefully to secure them.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal last week, the United States is working on how to contain and potentially secure Syria’s abundant stock of chemical weapons in the event of sudden regime change, or if an Arab-backed peacekeeping contingent is sent to the country. Syria is also suspected of having a latent biological weapons program, but there’s little concrete information known about its extent or scope.

Last week, the Diplomat’s Harry Kazianis explained the divergent opinions in Washington on how to deal with Syria’s WMD threat. The Syrian regime, led by a beleaguered Bashar al-Assad, continues to come under intense international pressure to acquiesce to the demands of thousands of its civilians which aspire for an end to autocratic rule. Damascus, which hasn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, possesses chemical weapons, surface-to-surface missiles and Korean No-Dong/Scud-D missiles. Specifically, western intelligence agencies believe that Syria maintains a considerable stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and cyanide.

The Wall Street Journal report claims that the U.S. has been working with Jordanian Special Forces to work out how best to secure nearly a dozen sites suspected of housing chemical and biological weapons.  The article indicated that a senior official at the Pentagon reassured that this wouldn’t be a unilateral strike, warning that such a mission would have to be “done in a permissive environment.” He qualified this by noting that neither Jordanian nor U.S. troops would want to “fight their way in through bad stuff, like chem and bio weapons.” Instead, it’s believed that Jordan would focus its Special Forces operations on securing the stockpiles as part of a broader Arab-led peacekeeping mission post-Assad.  

Washington remains concerned about Syria’s capacity to use chemically tipped short-medium range missiles capable of striking its interests in Iraq and its allies in the region, especially Israel. However, few believe that Assad would actually deploy these weapons against his enemies, foreign or domestic. The greater threat is that, if the Assad regime falls, these materials may fall into the hands of terrorist groups or organized crime networks which would look to either use them or sell them to another group with a similar intent. The United States seems particularly wary of weapons being diverted to Hezbollah, which could in turn be used against Israel. Adm. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, noted this month that these weapons would be a “very serious threat in the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah.”

The depth and geographic diversity of Syria’s chemical weapons program would make for a significantly more complex mission than those that were planned during the last days of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Despite this, the urgency of such planning can’t be overstated as Syria is much closer to Washington’s geostrategic interests and represents a potential tinderbox for the region’s stability.