Conflict is escalating in Syria with the Assad government losing control. Rebels are receiving new shipments of armaments and have extended their control to large areas of the countryside in the north and receive new shipments of armaments, even as high-profile army defections undermine confidence in the government and strain resources.
Syria’s massive chemical arsenal poses multiple dangers as the country’s violent unrest slides into civil war. As atrocities at the hand of the Assad regime mount and the United States facilitates the arming of the rebel Free Syrian Army by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, eruption of wholesale armed conflict is probably only weeks away. The outcome of the sectarian battle between Shi’ite Alawites and Sunnis poses enough of a regional problem. Control of chemical weapons could add mass lethality to the volatile mix.
Indeed, recent insurgent advances could soon bring one facility in the vicinity of Hamah under rebel control.
The unfolding threat looms large on the US strategic agenda. The Syrian arsenal is composed of hundreds of tonnes of classic and advanced chemical agents as well as munitions, from artillery shells to missile warheads that could have ranges as far as 500 kilometres.
The chemical arsenal reportedly is concentrated in some half dozen major sites. The blister agent mustard is said to be in bulk form that must be pumped into artillery shells and other ordnance, but the nerve agents are thought to be binary form: shells and warheads containing harmless solutions that combine into deadly gases and oils when munitions are launched. US officials note that the key chemical weapon sites are guarded by elite troops, said to be composed of Alawites loyal to the Assad regime.
The US, probably Russia, too, have surely warned Assad that use of such arms against civilians or rebel forces, foreshadowing use against civilians, is a red line that, if crossed, would inevitably trigger international intervention. Washington has certainly cautioned rebel forces against using chemical arms that may fall into their hands.
Still, the dangers cannot be minimised. The most significant would be loss of control over portions of the chemical arsenal by custodians committed to maintaining their security, triggered by any number of scenarios:
_ Custodians could be reassigned to the front lines of the impending civil war.
_ Custodians could desert posts to protect families as domestic turmoil continues.
_ Custodians could defect to the rebel cause, transferring control over weapons stocks to the Free Syrian Army, with confused lines of authority and plans to manage such materials that are likely non-existent.
_ Depending on the ebb and flow of battle, Assad could abandon the custodians if, for example, the sites fell within swaths of territory taken by rebel forces.
_ Or, custodians could be overrun by rebel troops, if the Free Syria Army leaders sought to demonstrate, through capture of a site symbolising Assad’s military strength, that the Syrian leader was losing his grip on power.
In any of these chaotic settings, bribery, bargaining for passage out of the country or ideological commitment could lead remaining guardians to offer up assets under their control. One potential acquirer of great concern to the US is South Lebanon–based Hezbollah. Even limited numbers of chemical munitions could enhance the threat to Israel and reinforce deterrence against future Israeli retaliation for conventionally armed Hezbollah rocket and missile attacks. Al-Qaeda also operates in Syria. Terrorist detonation of even a dozen chemical munitions in a Western city could wreak havoc. Adding to concerns, loss of control over the vast Syrian arsenal could make it impossible to establish that none of it had passed into new hands.
The US and its allies in the region are developing plans to address such contingencies, in particular, preventing the large-scale transfer of chemical arms out of Syria. Indeed the recent Eager Lion 12 exercise in Jordan involving 19 nations and more than 12,000 participants is said to have included this scenario among others.
One measure that should be implemented immediately is to announce that custodians who stay in place and protect these stockpiles from misadventure, will be protected, even rewarded, by the post-Assad government.
Amidst these dangers, however, may be opportunities. After Assad falls, decisions will be needed on how a new Syrian government will treat its chemical legacy – one of the largest chemical weapon stockpiles ever to change hands as the result of armed struggle.
Syria is one of a handful of states that have not joined the 1997 Chemical Weapon Convention, which prohibits parties from possessing these weapons and requires them to destroy existing stocks. A key goal for the US, which would be widely supported by other nations, would include orchestrating Syria’s commitment to eliminating its arsenal and joining the convention.
Washington and its friends in Europe and in the region have powerful inducements. For governments coming to power through revolution, civil war or secession, gaining international recognition and legitimacy are crucial immediate goals, as are integration into the world economy and, depending on the circumstances, obtaining significant outside economic assistance. Renouncing weapons of mass destruction by terminating suspect activities, eliminating stocks and subscribing to key non-proliferation treaties has repeatedly been a requirement for such benefits – Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all took these steps, focused on renunciations of nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapon programmes, in the 1980s and 1990s.
Libya did so as well, in 2003, following a sudden volte-face decision to seek accommodation with the international community following decades of rogue behaviour. Libya abandoned its nuclear weapon programme and joined the Chemical Weapon Convention, agreeing to destroy its sizeable chemical arsenal, by placing it under the monitoring system of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). By the time the Libyan civil war erupted in February 2011, it had destroyed more than half of its stocks of chemical warfare agent. The new government in Tripoli will continue this process.
The Syrian government that replaces Assad must be pressed to take similar steps as a condition for recognition and sustained support. Unfortunately, unlike Libya and the other previous renouncing states, which faced no external antagonists when they abandoned their WMD, any government that takes power in Damascus can be expected to consider itself the heir to Syria’s decades-long confrontation with Israel. In these circumstances, Syria’s chemical arsenal may be seen both as an essential deterrent to counter Israel’s nuclear capability and valuable bargaining chip, to be relinquished only in return for a significant concession from Israel, such as return of the Golan Heights.
To avoid such a relapse to the status quo, as the Assad regime approaches collapse, with neither the regime nor the insurgents fully controlling the state apparatus or Syria’s chemical arsenal, Washington and its allies must take steps to secure the arsenal under an international umbrella – perhaps through the deployment of international chemical-weapons security teams, including OPCW experts. Conditions on the ground will establish the presumption that the arsenal must be eliminated before a new government can revert to Syria’s traditional stance.
Because the moment will pass quickly, the US must begin planning now. Otherwise, Syria’s chemical armaments could continue to cast their shadow over the region for decades to come.
Leonard S Spector directs the Washington, DC, office of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies.
Yale centre for the study of globalisation.