With 70,000 people killed in the bloody Syrian conflict, this is a difficult truth: The safest place for Syria’s chemical weapons is under President Bashar al-Assad’s control. But Assad will eventually fall, his well-trained troops will likely defect, and one of the world’s largest chemical-weapons stockpiles may suddenly become available to al-Qaida or other groups to use in plots against Israel or Western targets. Then what?
So far, despite the high stakes, the United States has declined to get involved. President Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in the conflict would cross a “red line.” U.S. officials say they are evaluating claims from both sides that the other used chemical weapons in an attack near Aleppo last month that left 31 people dead. But there’s little the United States could do to secure those weapons. “I don’t believe we are in a position today to stop the flow of weapons systems if the Assad regime falls shortly and chaos ensues on the ground,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich, tells National Journal.
Bombing chemical stockpiles from above would spread toxic materials through the air. So the best remaining military option is politically untenable in Washington: sending tens of thousands of ground troops to seize the facilities where the chemicals are stored and get them out of Syria, with help from the Jordanians or the Turks. “That would be a major military operation, and, obviously, we don’t want to get involved to that degree, so we’re not going to do it,” says Stimson Center cofounder Barry Blechman. There’s one exception: “a situation in which the country is truly falling apart, the government is fleeing … and we’re afraid [the stocks] are going to fall into the hands of one of the more extreme terrorist groups that’s been fighting him.”
Even that approach would have tactical problems, says Charles Blair of the Federation of American Scientists. The 200,000 coalition forces in Iraq after the invasion were unable to safeguard tons of sophisticated explosives that were later used to kill U.S. troops. “Even if we could instantaneously get 100,000 people to Syria, we can’t cover it; there’s just too much,” Blair says. “Even if we could find some Syrian government official who could give us a count of what was there, there’s going to be an accounting discrepancy when the final inventory is done.”
The United Nations heeded Damascus’s request for an investigator to probe the attack near Aleppo to determine if any chemical weapons were used. Syria, one of the few countries that never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, is believed to have mustard gas, a sarin nerve agent, and VX, among others, that could kill people en masse. It’s important for the Obama administration to define what it considers chemical weapons, Blair says, because the Syrian government may be using certain nonlethal chemical agents for riot control, which is not entirely banned by international law. The general term “chemical weapons,” he says, could give people a false impression the red line was crossed and the U.S. has done nothing. “We’re not going to war over some sort of mace or tear gas.”
For now, a best-case scenario might look something like this: As chemical caches fall behind the line of territory seized by the Free Syrian Army, site custodians manage the stockpiles under supervision of a rebel or international team, says Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Even this plan would be risky. The West may not trust the hodgepodge opposition that includes fighters from the Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra terrorist group. It’s possible rebels could keep some weapons to jockey for power in the next phase of the civil war after Assad falls—or sell them for cash, a dangerous prospect when Western powers fear Hezbollah and even Hamas elements want these sophisticated weapons.
Rogers, who thinks chemical weapons have already been used in the civil war, wants more action now. Washington, which has focused on providing nonlethal supplies to the rebels, can use missile systems to create safe havens in the northern part of the country where the rebels could be trained, he says. “Vet them, equip them, send them back. You have to regain the confidence of the secular forces.… We can at least hope for a cadre of people who can be helpful when this thing does fall apart.” Rogers hopes those U.S.-trained people, after Assad goes, would muster reinforcements to secure chemical as well as conventional weapons such as surface-to-air missiles that could take down civilian jetliners.
The U.S. could learn a lesson from Iraq, where it was criticized for disbanding Saddam Hussein’s military rather than using the troops to help rebuild the country, Spector says. In a post-Assad Syria, the United States may want to retain troops specially trained to guard the chemicals to maintain security of the stockpiles—and even pay their salaries.
The debate over how to handle chemical weapons may be resolved more quickly if Assad uses them in the conflict. If he does, it would be harder for the Russians to support Assad, and China might not block international resolutions authorizing more action. Or the U.S. could attack certain strategic targets to prevent Syria from using the weapons—or even intervene, as in Libya, on humanitarian grounds once the violence becomes simply too horrific to stand idly by. “It might be that chemical weapons provide a cover for a more interventionist strategy,” Spector says. “And that really ends the threat much more so than physically securing the materials.”