WILL DESPERATE SYRIA USE ITS CHEMICAL
LEONARD S. SPECTOR
S. Spector directs the Washington, DC, office of the James Martin
Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
is escalating in Syria with the Assad government losing control.
Rebels are receiving new shipments of armaments and have extended
their control to large areas of the countryside in the north
and receive new shipments of armaments, even as high-profile
army defections undermine confidence in the government and strain
massive chemical arsenal poses multiple dangers as the country’s
violent unrest slides into civil war. As atrocities at the hand
of the Assad regime mount and the United States facilitates
the arming of the rebel Free Syrian Army by Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, eruption of wholesale armed conflict is probably weeks
away. The outcome of the sectarian battle between Shiite Alawites
and Sunnis poses enough of a regional problem. Control of chemical
weapons could add mass lethality to the volatile mix.
recent insurgent advances could soon bring one facility in the
vicinity of Hamah under rebel control.
unfolding threat looms large on the US strategic agenda. The
Syrian arsenal is composed of hundreds of tons of classic and
advanced chemical agents as well as munitions, from artillery
shells to missile warheads that could have ranges as far as
chemical arsenal reportedly is concentrated in some half dozen
major sites. The blister agent mustard is said to be in bulk
form that must be pumped into artillery shells and other ordnance,
but the nerve agents are thought to be binary form: shells and
warheads containing harmless solutions that combine into deadly
gasses and oils when munitions are launched. US officials note
that the key chemical weapon sites are guarded by elite troops,
said to be composed of Alawites loyal to the Assad regime.
United States, probably Russia, too, have surely warned Assad
that use of such arms against civilians or rebel forces, foreshadowing
use against civilians, is a red line that, if crossed, would
inevitably trigger international intervention. Washington has
certainly cautioned rebel forces against using chemical arms
that may fall into their hands.
the dangers cannot be minimized. The most significant would
be loss of control over portions of the chemical arsenal by
custodians committed to maintaining their security, triggered
by any number of scenarios:
In any of these chaotic settings, bribery, bargaining for passage
out of the country or ideological commitment could lead remaining
guardians to offer up assets under their control. One potential
acquirer of great concern to the United States is South Lebanon-
based Hezbollah. Even limited numbers of chemical munitions
could enhance the threat to Israel and reinforce deterrence
against future Israeli retaliation for conventionally armed
Hezbollah rocket and missile attacks. Al Qaeda also operates
in Syria. Terrorist detonation of even a dozen chemical munitions
in a Western city could wreak havoc. Adding to concerns, loss
of control over the vast Syrian arsenal could make it impossible
to establish that none of it had passed into new hands.
United States and its allies in the region are developing plans
to address such contingencies, in particular, preventing the
large-scale transfer of chemical arms out of Syria. Indeed the
recent Eager Lion 12 exercise in Jordan involving 19 nations
and more than 12,000 participants is said to have included this
scenario among others.
measure that should be implemented immediately is to announce
that custodians who stay in place and protect these stockpiles
from misadventure, will be protected, even rewarded, by the
these dangers, however, may be opportunities. After Assad falls,
decisions will be needed on how a new Syrian government will
treat its chemical legacy – one of the largest chemical
weapon stockpiles ever to change hands as the result of armed
is one of a handful of states that have not joined the 1997
Chemical Weapon Convention, which prohibits parties from possessing
these weapons and requires them to destroy existing stocks.
A key goal for the United States, which would be widely supported
by other nations, would include orchestrating Syria’s
commitment to eliminating its arsenal and joining the convention.
and its friends in Europe and in the region have powerful inducements.
For governments coming to power through revolution, civil war
or secession, gaining international recognition and legitimacy
are crucial, immediate goals as are integration into the world
economy and, depending on the circumstances, obtaining significant
outside economic assistance. Renouncing weapons of mass destruction
by terminating suspect activities, eliminating stocks and subscribing
to key nonproliferation treaties has repeatedly been a requirement
for such benefits – Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Belarus,
Kazakhstan and Ukraine all took these steps, focused on renunciations
of nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapon programs, in the 1980s
did so as well, in 2003, following a sudden volte-face
decision to seek accommodation with the international community
following decades of rogue behaviour. Libya abandoned its nuclear
weapon program and joined the Chemical Weapon Convention, agreeing
to destroy its sizeable chemical arsenal, by placing it under
the monitoring system of the Organization for the Prohibition
of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). By the time the Libyan civil war
erupted in February 2011, it had destroyed more than half of
its stocks of chemical warfare agent. The new government in
Tripoli will continue this process.
Syrian government that replaces Assad must be pressed to take
similar steps as a condition for recognition and sustained support.
Unfortunately, unlike Libya and the other previous renouncing
states, which faced no external antagonists when they abandoned
their WMD, any government that takes power in Damascus can be
expected to consider itself the heir to Syria’s decades-long
confrontation with Israel. In these circumstances, Syria’s
chemical arsenal may be seen both as an essential deterrent
to counter Israel’s nuclear capability and valuable bargaining
chip, to be relinquished only in return for a significant concession
from Israel, such as return of the Golan Heights.
avoid such a relapse to the status quo, as the Assad regime
approaches collapse, with neither the regime nor the insurgents
fully controlling the state apparatus or Syria’s chemical
arsenal, Washington and its allies must take steps to secure
the arsenal under an international umbrella – perhaps
through the deployment of international chemical-weapons security
teams, including OPCW experts. Conditions on the ground will
establish the presumption that the arsenal must be eliminated
before a new government can revert to Syria’s traditional
the moment will pass quickly, the United States must begin planning
now. Otherwise, Syria’s chemical armaments could continue
to cast their shadow over the region for decades to come.
with permission from YaleGlobal Online www.yaleglobal.yale.edu
(c) 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.