Syria: first state with WMDs to topple?

Never before has a country with Weapons of Mass Destruction been on the verge of collapse, says an arms control expert who argues for regional coordination to prevent a catastrophe.

Laszlo Balogh/Reuters
A member of the Free Syrian Army walks along a railway track in the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain near the border, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Tuesday.

International attention has once again turned to Syria’s chemical weapons supply following new information that may indicate President Bashar al-Assad’s military is preparing to use the weapons.

The revelation prompted warnings from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the use of such weapons would elicit an international intervention.

Presently it remains unclear what, if anything at all, the Assad regime is planning to do with its chemical weapons – just as likely as readying them for use, it could be that the regime was moving them to a more secure location, say analysts.

As Syria slips deeper into chaos, the issue of its chemical weapons is acquiring new dimensions that arms control experts say could lead to a situation either catastrophic, such as the weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or being used inside Syria, or their safe destruction.

“This is an unprecedented situation. Never before has a country armed with WMDs been on the verge of collapse,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “We are in uncharted territory here and it’s going to require a great deal of coordination between the United States, the countries bordering Syria, and the international community and the Assad regime, and the international community and the rebels to make sure the situation does not become catastrophic.”

The scope of Syria’s chemical weapons cache is unknown, but believed to be substantial. Nerve gases are among the deadliest weapons in the arsenal, particularly sarin gas. Such chemical agents can be attached to missiles and artillery pieces and are fatal when inhaled.

Rogue actors

A number of analysts say its unlikely that the Assad regime would use such weapons given the threat of an imminent foreign intervention that would most likely bring about the rapid fall of his regime. Still, as ongoing fighting creates growing disorder, there is the potential for a rogue military commander from either side – assuming the opposition captured chemical weapons – to use sarin gas or another chemical agent.

“The concerns have to be that particularly as Assad’s army begins to fall apart he won’t have complete control and discipline in every unit, and that’s certainly the case in the Free Syrian Army. There are all kinds of freelance operations in that thing,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank.

In recent weeks, opposition forces have managed to capture several government bases. As the rebels continue their advance, there is some question about what will happen if and when the group captures chemical weapons.

The FSA remains largely a loose-knit collection of fighting groups of a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, among them are hardened Islamists with ties to groups like Al Qaeda. An impure form of sarin gas was used in a subway attack in Japan by the Aum Shinrikyo group in 1995, killing 13 people. If a terrorist group acquired large quantities of the gas, it could have devastating results.

Still, if the sites are secured, arms control experts say it could present a rare opportunity.

“Although there is a danger of guards fleeing and some kind of terrorist organization stepping in and just grabbing some of the stuff off the shelves and running off with it. There’s also a potential positive side that if it’s handled properly, you might create an environment where the next government relinquishes these weapons,” says Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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