Center for Strategic Communication

Syrian President Bashar Assad (center) at a 2007 banquet honoring Syria’s armed forces. Photo: AP/Sana

What’s worse than a power-mad dictator with weapons of mass destruction? A power-mad dictator who may be about to lose them. This is the situation the world may soon be forced to face in Syria as the Assad regime begins to crack.  It is a potential nightmare that ultimately might lead to the use and proliferation of WMDs across the region.

Despite the rhetoric coming out of Washington, there are no easy solutions to the problem, and beyond the tragic possibility of actual WMD use, how this plays out in the near term could have deep strategic consequences by strengthening the resolve of other nations like Iran to acquire or retain WMDs.

How bad is it?  Earlier in the year, reports surfaced out of the Pentagon that it might take up to 75,000 troops to handle Syria’s illicit arsenal.  And that’s one of the better scenarios.  In the last few days open source reports indicated that the Assad regime is moving Syria’s chemical weapons from their storage locations. This has fueled speculation about possible use against rebel forces and stoked fears of regional proliferation.

Congress is clearly concerned. On Sunday, Sens. McCain, Graham, and Lieberman issued a joint statement expressing their alarm over the movement of the chemical weapons and urged President Obama to “respond accordingly.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers recently told the National Journal, “I am convinced that the administration needs to be much more aggressive in its contingency planning regarding chemical weapons.”  Of course the military and intelligence communities are monitoring Syrian developments, but prudent options are hard to come by.

So what are the real hazards associated with Syria’s WMD program?

The best open source reporting available from the CIA and groups like the Nuclear Threat Initiative indicate that Syria has a robust, decades-old chemical weapons program that has produced a variety of both mustard and nerve agents for use on multiple weapons systems ranging from missiles, rockets, artillery, and aerial bombs. There is also a great deal of unconfirmed reporting that Syria may also have a biological weapons program, but that the program has yet to produce weapons. The most threatening long-range delivery system that Syria possesses is the North Korean produced 700-km range SCUD-D. This arsenal makes Syria a forbidding regional threat, especially if the regime becomes seriously threatened by the rebellion or outside intervention.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Assads have allegedly used WMD  against their own people.  Back in 1982, the Syrian government is believed to have employed hydrogen cyanide gas to suppress a Sunni uprising in Hama, but that was minor compared to today’s events. This is the first time since World War II that the existence of a WMD-armed regime has been threatened. During the first Gulf War when Iraq had WMDs – save the backtalk for the comments section, please — the coalition against Saddam made it clear that its goals were limited to Kuwait and Iraqi use of WMDs would make those goals quickly change. Saddam was never faced with the prospect of “use them or lose them,” which is exactly what Assad faces today. If he uses them against his own people to suppress the growing rebellion, that risks triggering outside intervention from the United States and its NATO allies or Israel. However, Syria has enough missiles to lash out at NATO member Turkey and nearby Israel. How would they respond? The gamble for Assad is the bet that his arsenal is threatening enough to keep outsiders at bay. Another potential scenario for WMD use is if missile troops defect and use WMD against the regime. Or the regime might collapse prompting local commanders to start making their own decisions about using the arsenal in a final spasm of violence.

Eliminating Syria’s WMD is not an easy task either. The facilities are hardened targets — going after them will require the latest bunker-busters. And blowing up chem/bio facilities or missiles means risking releasing the actual agent and creating a humanitarian crisis for those caught downwind.

Beyond airstrikes, the long-term elimination of Syrian WMDs requires a boots-on-the-ground commitment. Open source reporting indicates that Jordanian Special Forces may play a role in securing Syrian WMD sites, but the characterization and elimination of WMD inventories takes hyper-specialized troops. Strategic Command’s newly formed Standing Joint Force Headquarters for Elimination, along with troops from the US Army’s 20th Support Command (CBRNE), are the Pentagon’s go-to assets for missions like this.  It was specialists from the 20th who quietly removed 550 metric tons of yellowcake uranium from Iraq in 2008. However, these troops don’t possess the resources to dismantle a state WMD program.  Removing relatively benign yellowcake is easy compared to destroying extremely toxic chemical agents like VX. The facilities the United States used to destroy its chemical weapons were basically small factories erected on site, something that tactical military units don’t do.

Then there’s the problem of Syria’s missiles. Many speculate that elements of Assad’s arsenal could find their way into the hands of extremist groups like Hezbollah. My assessment is that the long-range missiles aren’t that much of a terrorist threat. Most of Syria’s long-range missiles are complicated liquid-fueled systems that take specialized troops and facilities to store, fuel, and employ. Transferring them to Hezbollah leaves them vulnerable and risks use that invites massive retaliation.

The real proliferation threat is smaller chemical rockets designed to work with multiple rocket launcher systems, which Syria is thought to possess. The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that rockets make a handy tool for asymmetric warfare. If the regime loses control of its arsenals and the weapons find their way into the wild — like what happened in Libya — chemical rockets could be a lingering threat for years. Imagine if extremists were to smuggle a few chemical-tipped rockets across the porous Iraqi border with Syria and fire them from improvised rocket launchers at the sprawling U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad. Making matters worse is the possibility of former Assad regime WMD experts finding refuge with extremist groups.

The final threat from Syrian WMDs is the menace posed to larger nonproliferation efforts. Regimes seek WMDs for multiple reasons, but the common thread is a deterrent against outside attack. Syrian WMDs create a paradox for the international community looking to stem the spread of WMDs. If the West stays out of Syria, this reinforces the perceived deterrent value of WMDs.  This will further fuel the nuclear ambitions of Syria’s ally Iran. However, the reverse scenario is also true. If the West intervenes against Assad and he is forced out of power, this could make nuclear weapons more attractive as well. If chem/bio weapons didn’t deter aggression, then nuclear weapons might.

President Obama has been criticized for not acting in Syria, but WMDs complicate the situation beyond the usual platitudes and easy answers. Few options present themselves for policy makers wishing to “respond accordingly” to the situation. The sad fact is that, as unappealing as the Assad regime may be, doing nothing might be the best answer, at least for now.

(Disclaimer: I am not currently involved in any contingency planning for Syria, and my analysis of the situation and potential military options does not reflect any official position or policy.)