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.

Narciso Contreras/AP
A rebel fighter throws a grenade toward Syrian troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad during clashes in Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 7. Op-ed contributors Daryl G. Kimball and Paul F. Walker write: 'Syria’s chemical weapons cannot preserve Assad’s crumbling regime, but they can create an even more dangerous and deadly situation for Syria’s suffering people and its neighbors. The US and countries in the region...must overcome their differences to help preclude the use and spread of Syria’s deadly arsenals.'

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.

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.

Worse still is the risk that easily transportable chemically-armed artillery shells might fall under the control of Assad’s ally, Hezbollah, or one of the radical factions of the Free Syrian Army.

Options for preventing any of these deadly scenarios are few – and often flawed.

For instance, even precision airstrikes cannot destroy the stockpiles because there is imperfect intelligence on all possible storage locations, and attempts to destroy the depots could cause widespread civilian casualties. As we learned in the first Gulf War in 1991, attacks on chemical weapons depots risk release of deadly agents downwind over both troops and innocent civilians, and possibly cross-border into neighboring countries, with potentially long-term health implications.

Likewise, inserting foreign ground forces into Syria for the purpose of securing the dozen or so sites where Assad stores or produces chemical weapons would put those soldiers at very high risk. And doing so probably makes it more likely that Assad actually uses his chemical weapons.

In the end, the fate of Syria’s deadly arsenal may depend on the decisions of a few key Syrian officers and soldiers on the ground. Consequently, one of the most important steps that can be taken is for regional leaders to issue coordinated statements that reinforce Mr. Obama’s message to Assad, as well as to military personnel now directly in charge of the chemical stockpiles, that individuals will be held accountable if the weapons are used or pilfered.

Assad’s allies in Russia, as well as in Iran – which itself suffered from chemical warfare during the 1980-1988 conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – can help reinforce this message by threatening to withdraw all forms of support if Assad orders the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian rebel command and its emerging political leadership must also make it clear that individuals who maintain security of the weapons will be given favorable consideration in the post-Assad future. And the opposition must commit to secure these sites in the short run, without major injury or deaths, and to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention to verifiably eliminate the stockpiles over the longer term. 

The eventual destruction of Syria’s remaining chemical arsenal will require international support, including technical expertise and financing.  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has inspected and verified the safe destruction of over 54,000 tons of chemical weapons in six of seven declared possessor countries since 1997 (the great majority in the US and Russia). The OPCW will be needed to verify and inspect any such post-conflict operation in Syria.

Syria’s chemical weapons cannot preserve Assad’s crumbling regime, but they can create an even more dangerous and deadly situation for Syria’s suffering people and its neighbors. The US and countries in the region with interests in Syria must overcome their differences to help preclude the use and spread of Syria’s deadly arsenals.

Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the independent Arms Control Association; Paul F. Walker is director of the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program for Green Cross International and its US national affiliate, Global Green USA.

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