Center for Strategic Communication

Free Syrian Army in Idlib, Syria. Photo: AP/Shaam News Network

On Monday, the Assad regime caused an international stir when they said they just might use chemical weapons to stop so-called “external aggression“; it pissed off Syria’s allies in the Kremlin, and now Damascus is doing its best to take back the threat. However, the bigger news might have been made over the weekend when one of the heads of the Syrian rebels said the Free Syrian Army was preparing to secure Assad’s chemical stockpiles and gave no indication that the FSA was ready to give them up.

The Assad regime removed a bit of the veil surrounding its illicit arsenals by admitting that it did indeed possess chemical weapons. The Assad regime vowed not to use its WMD against its own people — perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that this might be the final red line that forced outside intervention in Syria’s growing civil war. Using chemical weapons like that would also remove the regime’s diplomatic top cover from powers like Russia, who today publicly chided Syria over its WMD talk.  However, the pledge not to use WMD domestically was veiled in a bigger threat to the outside word—stay out or the VX-tipped missiles fly.

Of course, all bets are off should Assad get backed further into a corner by the rebellion.  The regime still might face a “use them or lose them” scenario.  My assessment is that if faced between dying in a ditch like Gadhafi or using his WMD, Assad will choose WMD. For the sake of the Syrian people, I hope not.  The question remains will the Syrian WMD deterrent work, and if so, what does that mean for larger nonproliferation efforts?

These kind of questions may even continue after Assad is gone. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army say they know about Assad’s unconventional stockpiles — and are creating specially-trained units to secure them. A former regime officer named General Adnan Silou is heading up the FSA efforts to secure the WMD.  He claims to have trained the Syrian Army “in securing stores, in reconnaissance of possible threats, in how to purge supplies and in treatment should Syria come under attack a chemical or biological attack.”  This sounds similar to what the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency does to manage remaining American chemical stockpiles as they await final destruction. As welcome as FSA efforts to secure the dangerous materials are, there is no indication yet that the rebels will actually get rid of the WMD.

Silou stated, “the weapons used to be to protect Syria. Now they are just to protect Bashar.”  This does not sound like a man who wants to bring Syria into compliance with global nonproliferation efforts. Instead, it sounds like a man who understands the deterrent value of Syria’s WMD and wishes to retain it.   This is yet another piece of the puzzle for those advocating supporting the rebellion.  Will an FSA-led Syria be any better than Assad?