The crumbling regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad controls one of the largest chemical-weapons programs on earth, including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent. Syria has mated these weapons with artillery shells and missilery. Open-source materials indicate that Syria has five major chemical-manufacturing facilities in and around the cities of Hama, Homs and Al-Safira, along with 45 chemical-weapons storage facilities. As Assad and his loyalists focus on survival and the Syrian military splinters, these stockpiles are growing increasingly vulnerable.
Indeed, some chemical weapons have been moved in recent weeks but the growing fear is that they could fall into even less responsible hands. The candidates include: Hezbollah, which has strong ties to Assad’s Syria; al-Qaida, which is involved in the fighting; a rogue military faction bent on revenge; or a post-Assad regime controlled by jihadists. Any of these scenarios would pose a significant threat to U.S. and Canadian interests, to regional stability, and to the security of Western allies in Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Making sure none of them transpire must be a priority as events unfold.
This is easier said than done, of course. First, unlike the civil war in Libya, where Russia stood aside as NATO intervened to prevent a bloodbath, Moscow is deeply enmeshed in Syria. Russia maintains a naval base in Syria and has provided Assad with military supplies and diplomatic cover at the UN. Hence, the U.S. and other power-projecting states simply do not have the freedom of action in dealing with Syria and its chemical-weapons arsenal that they had in dealing with Gadhafi’s Libya, which, it pays to recall, had 10 tons of mustard gas that were never deployed. Syria, on the other hand, has warned that outside intervention would trigger a chemical attack.
Second, unlike the revolution in Egypt, which was relatively bloodless probably in part because of U.S. and Western intervention behind the scenes, the West does not have the same sort of military-to-military contacts in Syria. Moreover, Assad is no Hosni Mubarak. To be sure, Mubarak attempted to crack down on protests in the early days of the Egyptian revolution, but he chose to step aside rather than massacre his countrymen, again partly because of back-channel pressure from Washington.
The hard truth is that events may force the West to act—with or without any cooperation on the ground in Damascus, with or without any help from Russia at the UN.
Still, there is a sliver of good news amid the terrifying prospect of Assad’s chemical weapons being put in play: The allies have been preparing for this worst-case scenario.
Washington has reportedly intensified discussions about Syria’s WMD threat with partners in Israel, Turkey, Britain and France. The Wall Street Journal reports the U.S. and Jordan—which is deeply concerned about chemical weapons falling into al-Qaida’s hands—are co-developing plans to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, in the event of regime collapse or some other triggering incident. “One plan would call for Jordanian Special operations units, acting as part of any broader Arab League peacekeeping mission, to go into Syria to secure nearly a dozen sites,” the paper reported.
However, securing Syria’s chemical arsenal with ground forces would be a massive and dangerous undertaking, requiring thousands of troops. Such an operation would be all the more dangerous if it were conducted in a “non-permissive environment”—military-speak for a warzone.
Striking Assad’s WMD facilities by air poses less risk to allied personnel but it presents other challenges. To be sure, NATO air forces are equal to the task. And with NATO ally Turkey on Syria’s northern border and the open waters of the Mediterranean to Syria’s west, the allies would have clear routes of attack into Syria. However, Syria’s Russian-supplied air defences are more formidable than Libya’s, as the Turkish air force learned when one of its reconnaissance planes strayed near Syrian airspace.
In addition, even the most effective airstrikes cannot guarantee that every chemical-tipped shell or canister is destroyed. Without boots on the ground to inventory Assad’s arsenal, there remains a possibility that some chemical weapons would survive the airstrikes and be scooped up by hostiles. Moreover, the allies would want to avoid inadvertently dispersing the very weapons they are trying to destroy. In this regard, it’s important to remember that a) one of the main ways weaponized mustard is destroyed is by incineration and b) during the 1991 Gulf War, coalition airstrikes successfully destroyed Iraqi facilities that produced and stored chemical agents.
These sorts of contingencies may sound scary, but they must be weighed against the alternatives, which are perhaps scarier. There are no good options in nightmare scenarios like this. The challenge for the West is to choose the least bad option.