Potential loss of control over WMDs may pose a threat, considering the terror groups that would like to get their hands on them. Col. Riad al-As’ad, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, says al-Qaeda is not operating in Syria. But al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has reportedly ordered followers to infiltrate the Syrian opposition. Sunni radicals associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda, have urged fighters to go to Syria. And one should not doubt al-Qaeda’s determination to acquire WMDs—Osama bin Laden once professed that acquiring chemical or nuclear weapons is “a religious duty.”
WMDs could be smuggled into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank or elsewhere. In the past, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have all attempted to acquire chemical or biological weapons. In a sign of precisely how destabilizing some view this threat, Israeli officials have warned that Syria transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah would constitute a declaration of war.
The Friends of Syria, a coalition of over fifty nations that has met in Tunis to discuss forming an international peacekeeping force backed by U.S., EU and Gulf-nation airpower, should ratchet up pressure on Assad to step down. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other Islamic nations have clamored for ousting Assad. That’s a promising sign. Arab nations, not the West, should take the lead in dealing with Assad’s brutality.
Securing Syria’s CBRNE arsenal poses a uniquely serious challenge. NATO, Russia and China should join these Arab nations in demanding that Assad immediately secure his stockpile, then show he has done so.
President Obama has said the United States won’t commit troops to a military intervention. But there are other options. Allied partners could mount coordinated special operations to secure or destroy Assad’s arsenal. That may not be easy, but it can be done. And should the Syrian regime collapse, it will be essential.
Whether it is better to mount such an operation before or after Assad falls is a decision for military and political experts. But international leaders must think through the options and be prepared to act. All nations—but particularly those in the neighborhood—have a vital stake in containing these instruments of death and destruction. Now is the time for them to exert the leadership to ensure that happens.
James P. Farwell is the author of The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination & Instability and a senior research scholar in Strategic Studies at the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies (Canada Centre), Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.