By Charles P. Blair, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charles P. Blair is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and columnist with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist. The views expressed are his own.
Syria’s civil war is the first to engulf a country armed with weapons of mass destruction. Understandably, the unfolding cataclysm precipitated by that country’s collapse has prompted new levels of uncertainty and risk. But where exactly does the Obama administration stand on managing the various threats posed by Syria’s chemical weapons?
An April 25 letter from the White House to members of Congress included the Obama administration’s seventh notice threatening unspecified but “significant” action if the al-Assad regime crossed the “red line” on chemical weapons activity. But by remaining mute on what specifically constitutes a chemical weapon in the context of its “red line,” and by characterizing the mounting evidence of chemical weapons use by Syrian military forces as requiring “credible and corroborating facts” validated by the United Nations, the administration clearly wants to avoid (or at least delay as long as possible) substantive action against the regime.
Yet there are obvious risks to this “wait and see” approach.
The Obama administration’s distressing use of a “red line” for tripping unspecified significant action contradicts its long-held belief that intervention in Syria would only make matters worse. In the context of ensuring Syria’s chemical arsenal remains in the custody of responsible parties, the limits to outside intervention are obvious. Absent a massive and prompt invasion by capable foreign forces to secure the hundreds or, more likely, thousands of tons of chemical warfare agents and armed chemical munitions scattered around the al-Assad regime’s shrinking areas of control, the West (including Israel) has limited military options.
In early 2012, the U.S. Defense Department estimated requirements for guarding Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles at 75,000 military personnel. Still, even with 200,000 coalition forces in Iraq in 2003, and U.S. officials’ knowledge of sensitive sites, looters still removed several tons of Iraq’s most sophisticated high explosives. These munitions are used by some states to detonate nuclear weapons and are under seal by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Additionally, looting reportedly went unchallenged at Iraq’s main nuclear complex, Al Tuwaitha – the IAEA’s primary concern during the invasion.
At this stage in the conflict, it is likely that significant outside intervention by Western powers or Israel could actually hasten chemical weapon use on the part of Syria. Indeed, Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, stated last July that chemical weapons, “will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”
Regardless, by relying on the United Nations for definitive proof to validate Syrian transgression of the U.S.’ “red line,” the administration seems confident it has bought enough time to avoid substantive involvement in the conflict. The U.N. teams, key elements of which are in Cyprus for quick deployment, have so far been barred access to Syria. Their entry at any point before an al-Assad regime collapse therefore seems unlikely. Ironically, Syria requested the U.N. investigate alleged use of chemical warfare agents by opposition forces in an attack on the village of Khan al-Assal last month (opposition forces assert Syrian forces conducted the attack). However, the U.N. linked their investigation of the Khan al-Assal attack to a request for “unfettered access” to “any location” in determining chemical weapons use. Under this wider U.N. mandate, the al-Assad regime denied the inspectors entry.
Complicating the grim reality facing U.S. decision-makers is the disparate forces opposing the al-Assad regime. Since December 2012, the most effective armed force opposing the regime – the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, has been classified as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department. In addition, the umbrella of resistance groups increasingly finds dominance by factions linked to the Syrian Islamic Brotherhood. Reports indicate the creation of sharia-compliant zones in areas under their control. With dozens of additional violent Islamist factions joining in the Syrian fighting, Western powers increasingly see the futility in backing a movement whose secular elements are finding increasingly less influence in the battlefield and any post-al-Assad government.
All this means that the Obama administration, no doubt sensing the dangers inherent in supporting opposition forces that include a significant number of jihadists and other non-state actors violently opposed to Israel and the West, must pin its hopes on five possible outcomes.
The highly unlikely best-case scenario is the regime in Damascus, perhaps after a coup, works with the United Nations to relinquish its unconventional stockpile.
A second possible option is Syria agreeing to transfer power to another regime. The Israeli chemical and biological warfare expert Dany Shoham, for one, has described how, “a disorderly transfer might be made to an alternative regime in Syria with a lower threshold for the use and transfer of chemical weapons.”
A third, remote, possibility involves key Syrian military officials defecting and assisting the West’s intelligent sources in pinpointing the locations of al-Assad’s chemical arsenal. Such developments could facilitate a limited Western (possibly with Israeli assistance) covert intervention to secure and/or exfiltrate the stockpile.
Another possibility, and one that has received little attention in the United States, is that the al-Assad regime could transfer its stockpile to Iran. Limited to air and sea transport, some speculate that a stockpile transfer to Hezbollah remains more likely. However, there is little evidence that Hezbollah would accept such an offer.
While impossible to predict, the most likely outcome for Syria’s chemical weapon stocks could be the regime’s frantic attempts in its final days to relocate those chemical weapons still in its possession. This would likely result in a significant number of chemical weapons and chemical warfare agents falling into the hands of opposition forces (with some recipients surrendering them to the United Nations or to Western forces and others securing them covertly for later use or transfer). Western and Israeli military forces would attempt to secure known chemical weapon sites amid the chaos.
Although it is impossible to predict what will happen in the coming weeks and months, one thing seems certain – that Syria’s unraveling is likely to be unprecedented in its violence, regional impact, and, perhaps above all else, the fate of a vast chemical weapons arsenal.