Buoyed by the loyalty of his Alawite community, Bashar al-Assad has acted ruthlessly to crush dissent in Syria. His brutality has outraged the international community, but that has not deterred Assad. And the worst may lie ahead. Will Assad employ his weapons of mass destruction to quell dissent? And what will happen to his WMD arsenal should—President Obama now says “when”—Assad’s regime collapses?
Although fears of Iraq’s chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRNE) capability were also questioned, the Syria situation is different. No one doubts that Syria possesses a modern chemical-weapons capability and thousands of rockets capable of downing passenger aircraft. In contrast, Desert Storm crippled Iraq’s chemical-warfare capability; it never reconstituted that capacity, although the Iraqi Intelligence Service maintained a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test chemicals and poisons. Iraq was planning to produce chemical-weapons agents, but coalition forces discovered no stockpiles in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the case of Syria, credible assessments suggest that capabilities already exist.
Syria’s past behavior is disturbing. It is a non-nuclear-weapon state, party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and it has a comprehensive nuclear-safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet after Israel destroyed what was probably a plutonium-production reactor at al-Kibar in 2007, an IAEA investigation found Syria had breached its obligations under the NPT.
More recently, Lt. Abdulselam Abdulrezzak, who once worked in Syria’s chemical-weapons department, made (unverified) claims that chemical weapons were employed in Bab Amr against protesters.
All this points to a shared international interest in containing Assad’s CBRNE arsenal. Using these weapons against his own citizens would constitute a war crime. And the weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups would enlarge the threat.
A Lethal Arsenal
The nonpartisan Nuclear Threat Initiative assesses that Syria has one of the most sophisticated chemical-warfare capabilities in the world. It has mustard gas and sarin, possibly the VX nerve agent and Scud-B and Scud-D ballistic missiles capable of being fitted with chemical warheads. Some estimate it holds between one hundred and two hundred Scud missiles already loaded with a sarin agent and has several hundred tons of sarin agent and mustard gas stockpiled that could be used for aircraft bombs or artillery shells. It is one of only eight nations that is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing the production, possession and use of chemical weapons. Its agents are weaponized and can be delivered. Although most believe that the arsenal is in working order, we should not presume that is true. It could possibly be in a significant state of deterioration, which would intensify the hazard and suggest it must be dealt with sooner rather than later.
Reports differ as to Syria’s biological-warfare capability. German and Israeli sources believe it possesses bacillus anthracis (which causes anthrax), botulinum toxin and ricin. American sources believe the capability is “probable.” In 1972, Syria signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, but it has never ratified it.
The international community seems prepared to act. Russia, which values Syria as an arms customer and worries Assad’s fall would reduce its influence in the Middle East, has taken pains to separate itself from Assad’s possible use of WMDs, strongly denying that it has helped Syrian forces use chemical weapons against the opposition. Even while aiding Syrian efforts to crush the protests, Iran denies transferring chemical weapons to any third party.
The U.S. State Department has sent a diplomatic demarche to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia warning against the possibilities that WMDs may cross their borders. In August, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the United States and its Mideast allies were intensifying surveillance of Syrian chemical and biological depots through satellites and other equipment. The United States has offered to help any post-Assad government secure Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and anti-aircraft missiles.
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.