The firmly held belief in the US, Israel, and other countries that the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad holds large quantities of chemical weapons is a major factor under consideration for all the international players involved in the Syrian crisis.
Hard data on Syria's chemical and biological warfare capabilities is scarce, but the country is believed to have one of the largest chemical agents stockpiles in the world, including VX and Sarin nerve agents. It also has an impressive number of surface-to-surface missiles, such as Scud-Ds which can be fitted with chemical warheads, and modern Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries, including portable shoulder-fired systems.
"This is unknown territory," says Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. "We have never been through the potential collapse via a very bloody ethnic civil war of a country that is likely armed with a very large stockpile of chemical weapons.”
... The main concern in the West is that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in Syria will attempt to obtain chemical agents from Syrian stockpiles. Al Qaeda has been seeking chemical and biological weapons since at least the late 1990s. Documents seized by US troops in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that Al Qaeda was working on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, possibly attempting to weaponize biological agents. In 2009, a British tabloid reported that an Al Qaeda group in Algeria was forced to abandon a training camp after experiments to weaponize bubonic plague led to the deaths of 40 militants.
I wrote last week about reports of CIA involvement in determining which rebel groups receive weapons, and expressed some concern that they could be a first step towards a broader US involvement in Syria's civil war. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the rebellion; Iran and to a lesser extent Russia are backing Assad. That's one messy situation to get in the middle of.
But I neglected to mention Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and long-range missile systems, an issue that is probably at the top of the list of concerns of every US soldier and intelligence officer working on Syria. While the collapse of the Baath regime isn't imminent, it's certainly possible. And if that day comes, finding a way to secure the country's chemical weapons – which could end up almost anywhere, given the country's porous borders and history of smuggling over the Iraqi, Turkish and Lebanese borders – will be paramount.
It's a safe bet that the US operatives making contacts with rebel groups in Turkey are bringing up this issue, and seeking to create relationships and cut deals that will give the US and its allies a head start on locking down Syria's chemical weapons if that day ever comes. Fear of so-called weapons of mass destruction is an issue that could see the US form temporary alliances with militant groups it wouldn't touch with a barge pole under other circumstances.