The recently leaked cable regarding possible chemical weapons use by Syria last month has once again highlighted the security risk posed by Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, experts believe. It also has one of the most advanced chemical arsenals in the Middle East and is one of only six states that have neither signed nor ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria’s chemical capabilities include production of mustard gas, Sarin, and Scud-B and Scud-C missiles capable of delivering these toxins.
The security risk posed by Syria’s chemical weapons has been a matter of international concern for years. The ongoing civil war exacerbated these concerns. In a rare show of unity, the international community has condemned the use of chemical weapons by Syria.
In August, the White House administration indicated that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that would cause the U.S. to reconsider its position on intervention in Syria. President Obama has warned that “if the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons, or fails to meet its obligation to secure them, the regime will be held accountable”.
According to a recently leaked State Department cable, the Syrian military may have crossed that red line in a conflict last December in the city of Homs. But the conclusions of the report have been called into question. The cable cites interviews with doctors on the scene of the conflict. Reports on the victims’ conditions lead experts to believe the toxin Agent 15 was used, “known also by its NATO code BZ, which is a CX-level incapacitating agent that is controlled under schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is not a party”.
The cable stands in contrast to earlier assessments of the conflict, which concluded that Syria has only used conventional weapons. Some experts have noted that it seems unlikely that Syria would have crossed the red line, as it would be foolish to provoke international action. Both the White House and the State Department have refused to confirm the cable’s conclusions.
Whether the cable is upheld or not, Syria’s chemical arsenal is an ongoing international security concern. In addition to fears that the Syrian regime may use the weapons against its own people, if the regime falls, the security of these dangerous weapons would be in jeopardy. Due to this apprehension, the Obama administration may be seeking the aid of Syria’s neighbors; Turkey and Jordan to help secure the weapons should Assad’s government fall.
Many security experts like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have expressed fear that if the regime falls, these weapons may fall into the hands of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. This contingency may create a scramble to maintain the security of these weapons.
The effort to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal will be a strategic and tactical challenge that would prove “almost unachievable,” according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. It would require significant resources – 75,000 troops, according to the Pentagon.
There are no easy answers to Syria. But the situation with Syria’s chemical arsenal is clearly a top security concern that must not be underestimated as policymakers develop next steps.