At a press conference on August 20th, Chuck Todd asked President Obama to address the issue of Syria and chemical weapons. The MSNBC correspondent wanted to know if the commander in chief planned to use the US military to secure WMD in the war-torn country, and if he was “confident that the chemical weapons are safe.”
The president gave standard replies about President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of legitimacy, the ensuing humanitarian crisis, and “consultation” with Syria’s opposition groups. He then returned to WMD:
I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
“So you’re confident … it’s safe?” Todd followed up. “In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident,” the president replied, concluding the press conference. “What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully.”
Three weeks later, the situation is no less volatile, and growing instability presents the most arresting opportunity to date for terrorists and other troublemakers to acquire WMD.
Syria is without precedent in possessing missiles with chemical warheads while falling into a major civil war. Syrian forces could deploy chemical WMD by Scud missile more than 400 miles away, and the Center of Scientific Research and Study in Damascus has sufficient know-how to manufacture biological WMD, like anthrax, although none seem to be weaponized. Israel’s Operation Orchard demolished Syria’s nuclear program in September 2007, but chemical and biological weapons still pose a serious problem that could extend well beyond Syria.
In July, the Assad regime claimed its stockpiles of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas, and cyanide were only for use against foreign forces, and “would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people.” But that declaration has given little comfort to Syria’s citizens, neighbors like Israel and Jordan, and Western powers like the US and France. In recent weeks, in a show of its true colors, the Syrian military has begun using “barrel bombs”—pipeline segments filled with TNT, oil, and scrap metal—against rebels and civilians, indiscriminately.
Jerusalem, Amman, Nicosia, and ships in the eastern Mediterranean are all within range of Syrian WMD. Rumors abound that Assad is fashioning an Alawite safe haven at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast and relocating chemical weapons there to ensure deterrence. If Syria used WMD against Western forces or civilian targets, the response, in the words of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, “would be massive and blistering.” The more likely danger, then, is that the weapons would fall into the hands of militants during instability surrounding Assad’s ouster.
Storage facilities for Syria’s chemical weapons are located primarily in the Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo provinces. Once protected by Alawite guards loyal to Assad, security has become less certain as the rebellion gains ground and government forces are killed, surrender, or defect. Details about the weapons themselves, which were acquired with the help of Iran, remain sketchy, but sarin gas is storied in an estimated 100 to 200 warheads, and the regime also has several hundred tons of other chemical agents like mustard gas ready for operation.
As with the WMD, Assad’s secrecy ensures that estimates of Scud missile numbers vary widely. Three years ago, Syria was thought to have at least 550 Scud B, C, and D missiles, based on mobile launchers, with ranges of 188, 344, and 438 miles, respectively. Under Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, Syria even conducted Scud B test flights for chemical weapons payloads during 1998 and 2001. The Scud C and D versions have improved guidance systems, but fewer are loaded with chemical warheads. Iranian expertise is present in those deployment systems, as is Russian, Chinese, and North Korean technology.
The size of any Scud makes it difficult to transport stealthily, although Israel’s government alleges the Assad regime has passed some of the missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Turning over existing launch sites to that organization, however, bolsters its destructive capabilities as a surrogate for the Syrian regime and Iranian patrons. Not surprisingly, at least one Scud launch site near Damascus has been identified as—probably—a training ground for Hezbollah in missile and WMD technologies.
If Assad falls, Iran stands to lose its principal ally in the Middle East as well as its route for rearming militants like Hezbollah—which explains the WMD-charged threat Tehran issued in August through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps:
Who can guarantee that armed groups or certain countries have not already armed themselves with weapons of mass destruction or that [those] weapons … will not find their way into Tel Aviv? It is best to stop the violence [against Assad] in Syria or the order to attack will be issued.
The ayatollahs, in other words, while unlikely to unleash a war triggering their own obliteration, work through others to keep the world unsettled.
Equally dangerous, but even harder to regulate, are non-state actors. Jihadists sympathetic to al-Qaeda, which has expressed interest in acquiring WMD, are on the ground in Syria. So are other foreign fighters, driven by diverse ideological and monetary motives, from Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Belorussia, and Russia—despite attempts by rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army to distance themselves from those trouble-makers. Opportunities for terrorists of disparate backgrounds and views, yet sharing anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiments, to capture Scuds and chemical WMD increase as storage sites fall out of the Syrian armed forces’ control.
Chemical agents and chemically weaponized delivery systems could also become a lucrative business for unscrupulous Syrians and foreigners seeking financial gain irrespective of broader concerns. Aerially detonated WMD would be sought after by militant organizations and lone terrorists, by rogue states and non-state actors wishing to spread harm to other parts of the globe. Smuggled into Iraq, the WMD could target US Central Command’s headquarters in Qatar and the Persian Gulf’s crude oil terminals.
And it should not be assumed that chemical agents would be of limited value to terrorists because those individuals and organizations lack the bombs, shells, and missiles by which such WMD are traditionally weaponized and delivered against targets. Even if deployed by militants only via shells and canisters over short ranges, chemical WMD could produce carnage and induce widespread panic. Nor can the destructive capability of such WMD be taken lightly just because some of those chemicals dissipate quickly.
Limited delivery capability, toxic durability, and even target size do not mean that considerable danger does not exist. Moreover, unlike the weapons that were vulnerable during Libya’s war last year, Syria’s WMD have full-fledged delivery systems that could be used to target not only Syrians but also US forces, Israel, and the West’s allies in the Middle East. Any strike beyond Syria, whether by Assad’s desperate men or by terrorists who seize the weapons, would plunge an already shaky global community and economy into chaos.
When it comes to weapons like these, the US and its partners have acted decisively in the past, sticking to the kind of red lines President Obama discussed in his August remarks. They deftly forestalled WMD from going astray when the Soviet Union disintegrated. They negotiated Qaddafi out of his nuclear weapons and are now tracking down the Libyan chemical stockpile. Syria warrants no less—not an invasion, but preventative actions ranging from intercession at specific WMD, Scud, and comparable installations to instituting mechanisms for safe disposal. Such plans supposedly have been made by the Pentagon. But implementation cannot wait until Assad is gone, for by that time the weapons may be in the wrong hands already, and disaster could engulf not only individual countries but the world.
Update: Reports are now emerging that Syrian tanks and aircraft recently test-fired shells designed to carry chemical WMD at a research facility in Safira southeast of Aleppo. Iranian military officials are said to have been present at that exercise.
Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in Strategic Intelligence and Information Management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc. Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Islamic and International Studies and senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, where he has also served as director of Middle Eastern Studies.