Of all the tensions over the fighting in Syria, none is as worrisome as the future of the chemical weapons stockpiled in sites around the country.
Will they be stolen, moved, or even used if the Assad regime starts to collapse?
No one really knows.
Unlike Iran’s mere potential to build a nuclear weapon or North Korea’s underground testing of nuclear devices, Syria’s chemical weapons are ready for action – and right in the middle of a uncertain civil war.
“The country is a chemical powder keg ready to explode,” states a March report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Frightening as that may be, the United States, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other states have come up with contingency plans to prevent the weapons from being used (by quietly warning Bashar al-Assad) or to keep them from falling in the hands of terrorists (by monitoring the sites remotely and guarding Syria’s borders carefully).
One US official told CNN that 75,000 troops would be needed if foreign forces had to secure all the stockpiles, of which there may be as many as 50. Jordan, which has absorbed thousands of Syrian refugees in the past year, would likely be the best choice to conduct such a task.
The chemicals produced by Syria over the past few decades are presumed to be mustard gas, sarin, and possibly the VX nerve agent. For a regime run by Syria’s small minority of Alawites, the weapons may be seen as a last-ditch defense against a fall from power.
Russia, Syria’s strongest ally and a longtime arms supplier, knows well that the weapons are a big problem, one that may blow back on Russia itself if they go missing. Their use by Assad forces would constitute a war crime, and would likely push the international community to approve a quick invasion of Syria.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for an arms embargo on Syria. She should have also asked for Russia to assure the world that Syria’s weapons of mass destruction will not be used and will not be stolen or moved. Vladimir Putin has the clout to do that.
Syria is one of a few countries that never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even if it had, the possibility of a sudden fall of the Assad regime would leave the country with no clear ruler.
In recent testimony to Congress, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained: “There is no identifiable group that would succeed him, and so there would be kind of a vacuum that would lend itself to extremists operating in Syria, which is particularly troublesome in light of the large network of chemical ... weapon storage facilities.”
Other issues need to be addressed. Israel is rightly concerned that the weapons might end up with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. And if outside forces try to secure the chemical-weapon sites, what are the legal ramifications if any weapons end up on the loose?
The ruthlessness of the Assad regime – beginning with that of Assad’s late father, the previous president – in demolishing domestic opponents raises the level of concern about the possible use of the weapons. That may be one reason why the West and the Arab League have been reluctant to escalate the fighting.
The shaky cease-fire that began a week ago could easily collapse, leaving even greater warfare as the only option for the anti-Assad rebels.
The world needs to be alert to this threat and seek all options to contain it.