Assad's chemical weapons: Nightmare scenario?If Syria's Assad regime goes the same way as Libya's Gadhafi, there is deep concern here in Israel and in Washington over what would happen to Syria's chemical weapons supply. While most of Libya's chemical weapons consisted of World War I era mustard gas, most of Syria's chemical weapons consist of highly concentrated Sarin, a nerve gas that can be deadly even if inhaled in small quantities.
Moreover, while Libya's chemical weapons were mostly in World War I era canisters, Syria's are in thousands highly transportable artillery shells and warheads. The fear here and in Washington is that if the Assad regime falls, terror organizations, many of whom are based in Syria, could get their hands on these lethal weapons. Although many analysts doubt that Assad would deliberately share chemical bombs with terrorists, it is not inconceivable that weapons could vanish amid the chaos of an uprising that destroys Syria’s vaunted security services, which safeguard the munitions.Israel is also very concerned about the fate of Assad's chemical weapons.
“This is a scenario that’s on the radar screen if things go downhill,” said a U.S. security official who monitors events in Syria. “A lot of people are watching this closely.”
Many countries, including the United States and Russia, gradually eliminated their chemical-weapons arsenals, but Syria refused to sign the U.N. Chemical Weapons convention and proceeded to develop an ever larger and deadlier stockpile. The CIA has concluded that Syria possesses a large stockpile of sarin-based warheads and was working on developing VX, a deadlier nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment.
By early in the last decade, some weapons experts ranked Syria’s chemical stockpile as probably the largest in the world, consisting of tens of tons of highly lethal chemical agents and hundreds of Scud missiles as well as lesser rockets, artillery rockets and bomblets for delivering the poisons.
Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s chief diplomat for the Middle East, last year cited Syria’s chemical weapons program as a primary reason for continuing U.S. economic sanctions against the Assad regime.
“We will continue pressing the Syrian government on its problematic policies,” Feltman said in testimony before a House committee.
"We are very concerned about the status of Syria's WMD, including chemical weapons," Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told the Wall Street Journal this week. "Together with the US administration, we are watching this situation very carefully."Leonard Spector lays down some other scenarios in which Assad's chemical weapons could be used.
Israeli officials have expressed concern over the instability that could follow the ouster of the Assad regime, which for four decades kept a quiet border on the Golan Heights even as it armed Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist groups. According to Oren, however, Israel is not necessarily opposed to seeing Assad leave the international stage. "We see a lot of opportunity emerging from the end of the Assad regime," he said.
Let's start with the possibility of civil war. According to researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, open sources indicate that there are at least four, and potentially five, chemical weapons production facilities in Syria. One or two are located near Damascus, the other three situated in Hama, Latakia, and al-Safir village, near the city of Aleppo. Hama is one of the hotbeds of the Syrian revolt, which Assad's tanks attacked in early August and where, more recently, fighting has severely damaged the city's hospitals. Latakia is another center of unrest; it was shelled by the Syrian Navy in mid-August. Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, has also seen significant demonstrations.There's a precedent for Assad using chemical weapons: His father did it.
If anti-Assad insurgents take up arms, the chemical sites, as symbols of the regime's authority, could become strategic targets. And, if mass defections occur from the Syrian army, there may be no one left to defend the sites against seizure. This could lead to disastrous outcomes, including confiscation of the chemical weapons by a radical new national government or sale of the weapons as war booty to organized nonstate actors or criminal groups.
In such chaos, no one can predict who might control the weapons or where they might be taken. With these chemical weapons in the hands of those engaged in a possible civil war, the risks that they would be used would increase substantially. The problem would be worsened further if some possessors were not fully aware of the extent of the weapons' deadly effects.
And let's imagine that Assad is eventually removed: What leaders would gain control of these weapons after he departed? Saudi-backed Sunni groups? Iranian-backed Shiite organizations? Whoever they might be, it is unclear that the newcomers would follow the Assads' cautious-use doctrine and refusal to share chemical weapons with nonstate groups, or that the new leaders would be able to maintain strict security measures at the chemical sites.
Meanwhile, it's possible that an existential threat will cause the Assad regime to abandon its previous policy of restraint regarding chemical weapons. It is not a huge leap from attacking civilians with tank fire, machine guns, and naval artillery to deploying poison gas, and the shock effect and sense of dread engendered by even limited use could quash a citywide uprising within an hour.
The options available to the United States to minimize these risks are limited at best. Washington has certainly warned Assad against using the weapons domestically. But with Assad already at risk of indictment for crimes against humanity, and given his likely belief that the United States will not intervene militarily due to its commitments elsewhere -- including its politically unpopular and still opaque involvement in Libya -- U.S. warnings may have little deterrent effect.
A pre-emptive Israeli military strike to destroy the weapons does not appear technically feasible: Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were ready to change the status quo, Assad is believed to have stored bulk chemical agents and filled (or quickly filled) shells and bombs in underground bunkers at multiple sites throughout the country. Moreover, even if Israel used incendiary bombs in an attempt to incinerate the chemical agents, the risk of dispersing large quantities of poisonous liquids would remain, with the potential to cause large-scale casualties.
In Monday's JPost, Canadian Anthony Rusonik makes a case for what he calls Israeli intervention in Syria. Curiously, he does not even mention the chemical weapons, choosing instead to urge our government to take in Syrian refugees, including 'Palestinians' (you can tell he doesn't live here), and to set up around Syria's nautical border.
Israel could yet end up with more urgent reasons for a more active intervention. But knowing how this country works, it is likely that the Mossad has 'assets' on the ground in Syria, and will let the government know if the chemical weapons situation necessitates an active Israeli role.