U.S. kicks Syria chemical weapons can down the road
April 30th, 2013
11:08 AM ET

U.S. kicks Syria chemical weapons can down the road

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.

More from GPS: Obama's empty threats

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.


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Topics: Syria

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. anabel

    What does this article have to do with "kicking the can down the road?" It seems to me that it points out some courses of action in a very difficult situation. The headline also also gives one the feeling that the Administration has not really given serious thought as to what to do other than avoid making a decision.

    If this is the author's view and not that of the headline writer, then Mr. Blair is a fool, which I am sure he is not. Could CNN tell us who wrote the headline. CNN Staff? the Reason? Bait and switch?

    April 30, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      The Iraq war comes back to haunt the politicians. America has learned the lesson the hard way and is reluctant to intervene militarily in a third Muslim country.

      April 30, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Now the Obama-administration is cautious of over-selling its level of certainty, given too little hard information is available.

        April 30, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
      • Andrey

        Want to bet US hasn't learned anything? People are a bit sore from Iraq failure – after all the fall-out keeps happening right now. But the history will be dressed up soon and then repeated: give them a couple of years!
        "We do not like them: so we will supply weapons to terrorists!": I guess that's what the good guys keep doing over and over again! Where did they learn that?

        May 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  2. Hahahahahahah

    Well........Maybe Syrians should do something about it. Or other Towel Head countries. Hahahahahahahaha

    April 30, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • mliebe

      syria is not a towel head country you ignorant idiot! there are christian, jews and atheist syrians.. ignorant!

      April 30, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
      • Hahahahahahah

        Mostly Towel Heads I bet. Hahahahahahahah

        April 30, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • mark

      towelhead? go eat another cheese burger and weigh your overweight self, dont include your wife, lets not destroy the scale.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  3. Patrick

    If the right-wing thugs in Washington are so all fired anxious to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, then let the French do it! After all, France did occupy Syria between 1919 and 1941 and besides, they succeeded recently in Mali. With their army, navy and air force, they can take out the Assad regime within three weeks. But then again, many U.S. companies don't stand to make a great deal of money if this country stood on the sidelines and that's where the M.I.C. comes in!

    April 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Patrick

      I like to go jogging in my speedo.

      April 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  4. John F. Phillips

    Once again, the Obama Administration has established criteria for intervention in Syria that it has no intention of honoring. At his news conference today, the President stated that he needs to further study the situation before making a decision as to whether the "red line' had been crossed. While I think prudence is needed before some sort of intervention takes place, I wish the President wouldn't draw lines in the sand if he intends for the line to be moved on a consistent basis in order to meet some sort of domestic political criteria. Whether the United States likes it or not, they are still the only credible military superpower in the international arena. Because of the severity of the situation, the U.S. cannot "lead from behind" like they did in Libya. I believe that Senator McCain is correct and that it is time for the establishment of a "no-fly zone" over Syria and time for the United Staes to intensify its aid to the anti-Assad forces who are not closely allied with al-Queda or Iran.

    April 30, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  5. 100 % ETHIO

    "Red line"? What is it? I can not find it under American Law Books.

    The Syrian Government did not broke American Law. But, here in America we have some moron Jew who keep murdering Christian-Ethiopians (Directly/Indirectly) and concealing themselves by pretending to be none-Jewish.
    So, where is Justice to be served by arresting evil Jews?! How long do the U.S.A wait to confront criminal Jews?

    The Jews are damaging the Europeans image. They (Jew) committed crimes and pretended to be French, Italian, German, ....

    When it comes to claiming DONATIONS,..., they come straight as Jewish. But, when it comes to hit-and-runs and committed other dangerous crimes, they pretended to be none-Jewish. You could even see them going and associated with none-Jewish.

    None-Jewish Americans must watch carefully the total Jewish activities, everywhere. They are promising to destroyed American Cultures, its values and its future. It looks complicated, but when the time comes, it is obvious.

    April 30, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • Runner1298

      Are you Retarded?

      April 30, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
      • mark

        the biggest terrorist state by example is the USA and Israel.

        May 1, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • james cox

      as a child my mom always told me (fools names and faces were found in public public places ) I don't know much about your kick on jews, the sooner you learn that we are people on this planet , no jews no arabs irish etc. we were all created from that few drobs. If you thinks your drops were better think again, the words that flow out of our mouth shows our wisdom

      May 6, 2013 at 12:40 am |
    • james cox

      What are you really trying to say? Maybe I can help a bit the word jew can be trying to get the price down on something another , the followers of the jewish religion are called jews now I go the Baptist church ,What does that make me. now I must be careful because what comes out of my mouth is a measure of what is in my head.

      May 6, 2013 at 1:50 am |
  6. Mark Thomason

    This overlooks that the new Syrian government will still need a deterrent to Israel. It will want and need those chemical weapons. It will not give them away.

    April 30, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  7. Runner1298

    I say send our troops down there and end this whole Syria discussion.

    April 30, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Such is to be expected from someone like you with your obvious lack of intelligence. You sound like another right-wing, ignorant, hateful Tea Partier. Are you one by any chance?

      April 30, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
      • IranAware

        You sound like another right-wing, ignorant, hateful Tea Partier... coming from a tool who calls himself McCarthy.. Go smoke your dope n let adults talk adult things

        April 30, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  8. bojack

    The only condition in which the U.S. should send troops would be to secure Syria's WMDs. The reason for this one exception is that if the rebel Jihadists seize them, they are likely to use them not only agaist the forces of the regime but also against Israel, the hated Shiites, and the despised Saudis. For example, If Israel is hit, they will respond with a justifiable vengeance. In such a scenario many innocent people will be killed on both sides. However this is the only exceptio. Here's why.

    Under all other conditions the U.S. and the West should not supply troops or arms to the Syrian rebels. All recent reports that I've read have stated that the The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafist oriented groups are now in the vanguard and may at this point represent the majority of the rebel fighters.

    There is a reason why the many Syrian minorities have not joined the revolution (Kurds, Druze, Christians, Turkamen, Circassians, etc.). They know what awaits them if the Islamist Sunni forces win the day. They gaze south to Egypt and see the Christian Copts being murdered as their churches and businesses burn by Salafist forces as the MB led government doesn't lift a finger to help them. Mubarak, dictator that he was, did protect them.

    They look to Iraq and see the Salafists butchering the Shiites. In Turkey they see the Islamist Sunni givernment's unrelenting oppression of the Kurds (a full eighteen percent of Turkey's population).

    Assad is a ruthless dictator, but like Mubarak, always protected Syria's ethnic/religious minorities.

    The Arab Spring has been an unmitigated disaster in Egypt and Libya (no longer a real nation state, but rather a series of statelets ruled by warlords and religious extremists (remember the Benghazi massacre).

    As difficult as it is to say, the new rulers of Syria are likely to be even worse than the Assad regime.

    The Mideast ain't the Midwest.


    April 30, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
    • mark

      you do realize isreal, india and pakistan have nukes. none of which are signed to the non proliferation treaty.

      the only country to use a nuclear bomb on another one is the USA.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  9. Ferhat Balkan

    At least 70,000 people have died since the uprising in Syria 2 years ago. More and more people are dying every day. Many of them women and children. Assad has been bombing indiscriminately and has made it very clear he'll never step down. There are close to 1,000,000 refugees in neighboring countries who have escaped the conflict, but have no future to look forward to. The UN security council has failed to reach an agreement due to countries such as Russia and China blocking any decision due to profits from the sale of arms to the regime. The longer we wait, the more innocent people die each day. Its clear that Assad doesn't care for the Syrian people. It is also clear he's used chemical weapons. Two bloody years have passed and no one has come up with a solution to end the conflict. At the very least, we could establish a no-fly zone. This should stop Assad's indiscriminate bombing to the North.

    April 30, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • Patrick

      Please Ferhat, wise up! Both sides in the Syrian civil war are committing atrocities but this the right-wing media doesn't talk about. It appears that the right-wing fanatics in Washington have been successful in deluding people like you into believing in the upcoming U.S. intervention which should never take place!

      May 1, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • mark

      since the US government is supporting the rebels, it makes you wonder which is the less of the evils.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • james cox

      I agree a no fly zone. equal up the sides a bit . COME ON WORLD DO SOMETHING what good will it do for the people to return if there are no shelter no jobs no nothing to come to. If enough people ask Russia and C.hina to consider the human impact hopefully they will reconsider an help put a stop to this mess.

      May 6, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  10. sand

    usa is lying just as usa lied in iraq afghanistan and lybia its a all a big lie.

    May 1, 2013 at 4:05 am |
    • mark

      petro dollar, since its not based off of gold, its based off of how many countries you can enslave with american imperialism.

      May 1, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
      • james cox

        If the west is so bad why do we have so many muslim and other beliefs coming to Canada and the United States. If you don't like our country just go back to where you will be happy. Happiness is just a frame of mind put a smile on your face you might find it catching.

        May 6, 2013 at 1:16 am |
    • james cox

      Just wondering Sand, you sound like an unhappy person. I am from Canada and I have learned that putting a smile on my face makes my life pleasant. Mayre you should try this and you may discover you wont be so bitter.

      May 6, 2013 at 2:16 am |
  11. j. von hettlingen

    The US has a big problem. Whatever it does, is never right. It has been criticised for doing too little for the Syrian rebels. It it intervenes militariily it will spark international outrage.

    May 1, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  12. rightospeak

    We heard a similar song on Iraq. Warmongering does not help in creating peace. Too much propaganda which contributes to and siphons money from the US-high time to stop wars, warmongering. We ourselves are in trouble and all the effort needs to be put on saving our country, the US, from IMPLOSION !!! Why can't we live in peace for a change ?. Endless wars got us to almost insolvency and we are still pouring more money in the same direction ? What we need is some sane people in charge. The crooks responsible for getting us in a pitiful situation need to go to jail..

    May 1, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  13. usa can only invade Grenada

    why usa is so cowered to attack this evil man in Syria and also the evil Hezbollah they both are terrorists and helped by evil Iran those snakes are worse than Hitler when usa and the free world will ever learn and wake up

    May 1, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  14. thelastindependent

    Basically, in the nutshell, we're boned, no matter how you slice it.

    May 2, 2013 at 8:53 am |
  15. Robert M

    The bare face denials that Syrian government agents and militias are using Sarin a nerve agents is an interesting comment on the official lack of respect for the truth by Chinese officials. This use of chemical weapons and the Obama's admins consideration of arming the Syrian opposition remain matters of deep concern as escalation of this conflict close to Israel is against the interests of the free world.
    Perspective needs to be kept about the likely scale of the death toll from Sarin use. It is interesting in WW2 that both the Allies and the European axis( Nazi govt) refrained from using nerve and chemical WMD in military conflict because they were deterred by the fear the other side would counter with WMD. However this deterrence did not deter the scale of the conventional conflict or stop genocide by the German regime of the time.

    May 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  16. vistar hornbill

    I think most people want a Assad regime collapse. But there must be caution where America's part in hastening the despise of Assad's Government. Particularly on issues like suppyling advance sophiscated weapons to the Syrian rebels.

    I know for a fact that no matter what military or financial aid US gave to any middle east rebellion, the post era would still be Arabs continuing to regard Americans as the traditional infidels. This is reality that is yet to be proven as a myth.

    May 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  17. virginia

    There the best i can come up with is this " the fighting over Syria is tearing her apart...both sides are willing to go as far as needed to gain Syria's favor- in the process both side are willing to let Syria die...before allowing it to belong fully to the opposition...mean while Syria's actions are so limited as to what is Syrians best choices.- next to none =non-choice scenario for Syria but to stand paralyzed by the actions it cannot control nor stop....

    May 3, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  18. Matt

    It reminds me of Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. Assad has Hizbullah and Iran fighting for him he has thrown everything including limited Chemical Ali at the opposition. Yet the opposition for the best part have been on the drip feed with weapons, money and fighters. Too a rational person what does that say. All the defectors senior guys have been due to rebel gains, every time one has escape Assad say oh yes but I was going or have removed him. Which mean you failed me a bullet in the head, and they just get out in time. So odds on are that most commanders if forced with failure will either defect or coup. There is always a small group of diehards but they are the ones that do the killing of the ones that fail him. Don't rule out a negotiated solution, it might not be the one the regime and their allies are talking about. Every time the tap is released whats happened Iran and Hizbullah are fighting and getting deeper involved, it is basically becoming an occupation of Syria. In which case they will be forced to negotiate at some point. At that stage it won't be about Assad it will be about their own position. Otherwise they will fight forever. Iraq/Iran was in the end a stalemate, Lebanon a compromise, Iraq there are no clear victories. You think Syria is bad wait until they have a Shiite in Iraq that won't give up power, which they can't remove and is unpopular with the Shia population. If they gave the same support in that situation as they are to Assad that could result in a intra-Shia conflict in both Iran and Iraq.

    May 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  19. virginia

    Iran is in bed with Syria and North Korea and sometimes even china Iran's boss...that needs to stop at once...Iran can't protect all three and still have anything left for himself...China will bend to the will of the US...Iran is too distracted with Syria and North Korea...sure Iran's priority is with China- his boss then Syria and none the less North Korea....North Korea is the weakest link cause none is helping her out not Iran nor China and Russia its not in her way....i still say proposing a protection to North Korea- from China is the solution here – Iran too might be a treat to North Korea and maybe even protection from Russia might work but i has very limited possibilities that North Korea will accept this deal with out cautions....China and Russia depend on Iran for protection...so they don't have to get in the action...North Korea isn't on no bodies side but her own...Syria is just paralyzed with fears....

    No Doubt Iran is the Biggest looser here...I don't understand why all three nation keep this going...when Iran is milking them all...I wonder if it's milking Russia also...

    May 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  20. James

    This is almost too funny. WMD's once again popping its head only now they are in Syria? So we support but another Bin laden faction in hopes to get what no one knows it real. Somehow I have heard this game before and we supposedly if you beleive 911 was real suffered backlash for our involvement. It is insane to stick our nose where it doesnt belong because if we do more than likely more of it will come back at us. Why dont we all agree our intelligence is severely lacking. We need to stay out and let these poeple make there own destiny.

    May 6, 2013 at 7:29 am |
  21. Joseph Kidd

    Concerning the Global War On Terror, #WMDs did exist. #WMDinIraq

    April 8, 2016 at 7:54 pm |
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