This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
President Obama on Monday warned that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would be “held accountable” for any chemical weapons used in the country’s bloody 20-month civil war.
Obama’s threat of unspecified “consequences” followed by hours a similar Monday assertion by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Syria's use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line”--a term previously used by the president in addressing the situation in Syria. While Clinton did not offer specifics, the red line is taken to mean the point at which outside military intervention in Syria becomes possible.
The new statements by the Obama administration come as anonymous U.S. government officials have told news organizations of troubling new intelligence indicating that forces loyal to Assad might be readying to put chemical arms into the field.
“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable.”
Damascus has said repeatedly that it has no intention of mounting chemical strikes against domestic opposition forces, but it has left open the door for employing such unconventional weapons to ward off a possible foreign aggressor. Still, there is the worry that Assad could employ his sizable chemical arsenal--composed of hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents, along with various delivery platforms--against Syrian rebels if he determines he has no other options to stave off regime failure.
Speaking at a symposium commemorating the two decades of nonproliferation gains accomplished through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, Obama promised in his second term to continue his high-profile efforts to secure nuclear and other WMD materials.
Since 1992, the CTR initiative has made considerable gains in securing weapons of mass destruction in former Soviet states, including the removal of all nuclear warheads from Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan; deactivation of more than 7,600 nuclear warheads; and destruction of thousands of delivery platforms. In recent years, the program has expanded beyond onetime Soviet republics, supporting disposal of chemical weapons in Albania and efforts to secure potential biological weapons ingredients held in African laboratories. The total count of participating nations is about 80, Obama said.
Despite these advances, the president warned “there is still much--too much material, nuclear, chemical, biological--being stored without enough protection.”
“There are still terrorists and criminal gangs doing everything they can to get their hands on them,” said Obama, who in his first term was instrumental in advocating for two high-profile global nuclear-security summits that focused on building broad-multinational support for tightening protections around atomic substances. “And make no mistake: If they get it, they will use it, potentially killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people."
The ongoing danger that terrorists might acquire and use an unconventional weapon means the U.S. government will continue funding its threat reduction programs, Obama told the forum's attendees, including CTR architects Senator Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. “Even as we make some very tough fiscal choices, we’re going to keep investing in these programs because our national security depends on it.”
The United States through the CTR program has provided Russia with more than $7 billion in monetary aid, technical expertise, and technology to secure Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction. That cooperation occurs under a soon-to-expire umbrella agreement that Russia dislikes for various reasons, including the oversight provided to Washington and liability rules that heavily favor the U.S. government and contractors in the event of an accident during a project.
Russia announced in October it did not intend to renew its participation in the CTR program when the underlying bilateral accord with Washington lapses in June, raising concerns about the future of U.S.-Russian nonproliferation cooperation.
Obama, however, sounded optimistic about the likelihood of striking a compromise with Moscow. “Russia has said that our current agreement hasn’t kept pace with the changing relationship between our countries, to which we say, let’s update it, let’s work with Russia as an equal partner.”