How the US can prevent the use and spread of Syria's chemical weapons
The conflict in Syria could become even more deadly if Bashar al-Assad uses or loses control of his sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons. The international community’s options to prevent these scenarios are limited, but they do provide a starting point.
Washington and Geneva
The brutal two-year war for control of Syria, which has already taken more than 40,000 lives, could become even more deadly if President Bashar al-Assad uses or loses control of his sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons in the coming days or weeks.Skip to next paragraph
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To help deter any such outcome, President Obama recently warned: “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
The threat posed by chemical weapons in Syria doesn’t just lie in the possibility that the Assad regime will use them against civilians or opposition forces. Storage and production facilities could come under attack, chemical components could be mishandled, and weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
For months, US officials have been developing contingency plans for the many different scenarios that could involve chemical weapons and have been consulting with neighboring states on a coordinated response. The international community’s options to prevent the use and mismanagement of Syria’s chemical arsenal are limited, but they do provide a starting point.
Syria is bound by the 1925 Geneva Convention not to use chemical agents in warfare, but it is one of eight countries that have not yet joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention banning all development, production, and deployment of deadly chemicals. It is believed to possess hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents, including sarin and VX. Its stockpile is deliverable by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets. Experts say that just a drop of nerve agent, on the skin, ingested, or inhaled, will kill a person in a few minutes.
For its part, the Assad regime has said it might only use chemical weapons in the event of foreign intervention in the armed conflict between the government and domestic opposition forces. In July, the Syrian government publicly acknowledged the existence of its chemical stockpile for the first time.
But as the regime’s hold over the capital city of Damascus becomes even more tenuous, there is a very real risk that Mr. Assad’s commanders will nevertheless resort to the use of artillery shells or bombs armed with chemical agents to repel the rebels’ final assault.
Even if the implied threat of direct foreign military intervention deters Assad from using chemical weapons, there is still the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons storage sites may come under attack and may come under the control of Syrian rebel groups unfamiliar with safe handling and security of chemical weapons. Several suspected chemical weapons storage and production sites are near the contested cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, and Homs.
Options for preventing any of these deadly scenarios are few – and often flawed.