While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s days are clearly numbered, the current insurgency in Syria seems to be heading towards a full-fledged sectarian civil war, with regional stability and security increasingly at risk.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, the US State Department and the Pentagon have been sharpening preparations for a post-Assad Syria, including plans to maintain health and municipal services, restart the economy and avoid a security vacuum. Unfortunately, the US hardly has a good track record, bearing in mind the situation in neighboring Iraq. With regional powers moving to consolidate or increase their influence, the protracted chaos and sectarian violence is creating a growing security vacuum which, if not handled properly, risks hideously exploding.
When Muammar Gaddafi’s regime lost control in Libya, huge amounts of arms were grabbed by various groups. Some of these arms remained in Libya while others were sold or transferred out of the country, possibly into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. Thankfully in Libya, with the exception of a secured stock of mustard gas, there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This is not the case in Syria, which apparently began to develop and produce chemical weapon agents in 1973 to counter the security threat which Damascus evidently felt from Israel. Syria never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, which makes it illegal to stockpile, produce or use chemical weapons. Hence Syria has been able to accumulate a massive pile with apparently very few questions asked.
Syria’s security vacuum opens the door for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda to try and get their hands on its large stock of chemical weapons including blister agents, such as mustard gas, and more deadly nerve agents such as Sarin, Tabun and VX. VX is the most potent and deadliest. It is also the least volatile which means it is the slowest to evaporate from a liquid into a vapor making it very persistent in the environment. Under average weather conditions, VX can last for days on objects that it has come into contact with. The 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack is a reminder of just how lethal chemical weapons can be. The attack was carried out with a tiny amount of low purity agent and very rudimentary dispersal techniques. 13 people died, and many more were injured.
As Assad comes to the end of the road, his pyramid of control is crumbling, most recently with the defection of his prime minister. This loss of command structure opens the door even further for control over his chemical arsenal to be lost. While Syria’s leadership recently threatened to unleash them if the country faced a foreign attack, the regime has said it would not use chemical weapons against the opposition forces. Yet Assad is clearly not a sane man; sometimes desperate people do desperate things and in a climate of war, nothing should be ruled out both by him and the opposition forces.
Clearly securing Syria’s WMDs is not going to be easy. The Pentagon has reported it could take up to 75,000 troops to do so, with intelligence reports suggesting there are an estimated 50 different WMD sites around the country, predominantly in rural areas. This would mean, according to a Washington-based think tank the RAND Corporation, that disposing them would require industrial-scale destruction operations, special facilities and a lot of time. However, the idea of sending US troops into Syria to carry out this job is a non-starter. It would be far too risky and would probably never get the relevant approval. Of course it could be possible to send in Special Forces from other nations, in particular other Muslim states, or it could be something which the European Union could take a lead in. Yet this would also only be able to happen after Assad falls and a new transitional leadership is in place. If Assad’s fall is messy, it will further complicate the situation.
While we can hope that the worst case scenario will not happen and that the WMDs will never be used, there is still an urgent need to develop a contingency plan, just in case. Israel is particularly nervous with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring that Israel would have to act if there is a hint that these weapons may be used, talking about striking Syrian weapons arsenals. It would not be the first time Israel has carried out a military strike in Syria. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force attacked a nuclear reactor. However, an air strike on chemical weapons could have catastrophic consequences unless the chemical agents have been neutralized beforehand.
For the time being, it seems there is little we can do other than continue to increase intelligence operations, request the opposition forces to act responsibly if they stumble upon the WMDs and hand them over and press Moscow -- Assad’s key ally and which claims Syria’s 1968 ratification of an international protocol prohibits the country from using poison gas -- to keep the pressure on Assad on this issue. Perhaps fears are exaggerated but the risk is too great to ignore.