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Preventing a Chemical Weapons Nightmare in Syria

Fear that Syria will resort to the unthinkable is not so far-fetched. The international community must be clear in defining its “redline.”

By Dina Esfandiary for

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.

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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.

Syria’s ongoing civil war has made the task of intelligence gathering particularly difficult. Getting specific information on the movement of weapons in conflict areas is not easy. In fact, as recently as 2011, during the intervention in Libya, NATO lost track of the number of Scud B missiles that country had, and were not able to secure the movement of weapons out of the country, despite having a presence on the ground. Similarly, U.S. concern that Saddam was going to launch a chemical attack using scud missiles from Iraq’s western deserts was a significant feature of the First Gulf War – but the threat went unrealized.

The U.S. claims its intelligence over Syria is better: “The U.S. government has good visibility into the chemical weapons program and we continue to monitor it” said a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson. U.S. intelligence has indeed focused its attention on the chemical weapons program and it has gathered valuable intel from defectors such as Major General Adnan Silou, the former head of the chemical weapons program. But the information is far from complete. The more common perception on Syria, including from Western officials is that “there are so many unknowns, so little information available that it becomes almost impossible to know what the regime may or may not be doing.”

Interestingly, the French newspaper Le Monde has provided additional information on the intelligence these reports are based on. It states that NATO and Turkish intelligence have confirmed suspicious activities around Syrian chemical weapons sites, but do not elaborate on the extent of the chemical weapons threat. In addition, U.S. and EU intelligence is partially based on information obtained from NATO surveillance flights, which are part of a broader operation in place since 2001 in the Mediterranean.

So what do we do with fragmentary and uncertain information?

The first step is to accept that nothing is clear in Syria at the moment. Although it is unlikely that Assad will resort to using his chemical weapons (and even less likely that the armed forces would universally comply with such orders should they come), we cannot be certain of it. As I argued in The Diplomat in July following the detection of movement of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, options for securing or destroying Syria’s chemical weapons do not look good. That is still the case. Indeed, last month U.S. military officials reportedly told President Obama that upwards of 75,000 U.S. troops would be needed to successfully secure Syrian’s chemical weapons stockpiles. At the moment, the only two ways we can respond to fears that Assad will resort to these weapons are preparation and establishing unequivocal clear red lines.

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.

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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).