The Middle East Channel

Assad’s toxic assets

Assad’s toxic assets

The battle of Homs is over and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have taken control of the besieged city. Yet despite what they viewed as a "tactical defeat," Syria’s armed rebels, who are operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — a group of defected soldiers from the Syrian military — vowed to continue the fight until the Syrian regime is toppled.

The balance of power tilts heavily in favor of the Syrian forces and, barring unforeseen circumstances, will likely remain so for months to come. But there is an increasing possibility that the governments of Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait could provide financial, military, and logistical assistance to the FSA in the not so distant future, bolstering its overall strength. Yet public statements by senior Qatari and Saudi officials expressing their governments’ desire to arm the FSA notwithstanding, there is no evidence yet of substantial amounts of money or weapons being transferred to the rebels.

Should regional governments and Western powers commit to turning the FSA into an organized and well-armed military force that is capable of both defending its members and launching offensive attacks against Syrian forces, Assad’s ability to crack down on the opposition will likely be degraded. But there is also the risk that such a strategy could not only fail but also have unintended consequences for the Syrian people and the region. Indeed, while a stronger FSA could put a dent in the repression campaign of the Syrian government (especially if the rebels receive anti-tank weaponry, improvised explosive devices, and modern communications equipment necessary for effective command and control), further militarization of the Syrian uprising is also likely to deepen and intensify domestic conflict, possibly causing a full-blown civil war. Facing what could be a more potent foe, the Syrian government will show no restraint in its application of military force, seeking to crush all forms of armed resistance once and for all. In the event that Syria slides into full-blown civil war, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon will bear the brunt of the spillover. Specifically, these countries will have to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence inside Syria (hundreds, if not thousands, have already arrived in Turkey and Lebanon), an outcome, which could cause heavy economic burdens and much societal stress for the host countries. Increasing sectarian bloodshed in Syria will also encourage al Qaeda and other radical Islamist actors to expand their involvement inside the country for the purpose of saving their Sunni co-religionists and establishing a base of operations in the region.

In this potential — and highly probable — scenario of widespread chaos in Syria, regional and international security concerns abound. High on a list of security worries for Washington and other Western capitals is the fate of the Syrian government’s stockpiles of chemical and potentially other mass destruction weapons. There are sharp disagreements among analysts and policymakers in the United States over what to do in Syria to stop the bloodshed. Some, including Senator John McCain, are calling for air strikes against government assets. Others such as Senator Lindsay Graham prefer arming the rebels. And another group favors efforts to establish a more effective diplomatic approach with Russia and China. However, all government agencies inside the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama concur on the critical need to keep a close eye on Syria’s chemical arsenal and other strategic weapons. "We’re watching this. We’re watching it carefully," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, describing the State Department’s efforts to monitor the safety and security of the Syrian government’s chemical arsenal. At the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman George Little stated that the U.S. military "remains concerned" about Syria’s deadliest weapons, but considers them secure for now. At the White House, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor noted that "Syria is a country of significant proliferation concern, so we monitor its chemical weapons activities very closely." At a February 14 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned that the United States was keeping a close eye on defections and the command structure of the Syrian army "to make sure they [the chemical weapons] are still under control of the regime." Three days later, in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senators Susan Collins, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Jeanne Shaheen urged the Obama administration to clarify U.S. plans for securing or neutralizing Assad’s chemical arsenal.

These statements and others by senior U.S. officials indicate that the Obama administration is cognizant of the possibility that the Syrian government’s stockpiles of chemical weapons might get lost or used against civilians or U.S. and Israeli interests should things fall apart in Syria and the regime lose its grip on power. A CNN report mentioned that the U.S. military has calculated it could take more than 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons facilities and production sites, which are estimated at 50 spread across the country (not to mention several storage sites and research centers). In addition to using satellites and other monitoring equipment to watch the suspected chemical weapons sites, Washington is also conducting talks with Syria’s neighbors (specifically Jordan) about the need to cooperate on border security to prevent smuggling of sensitive materials. Israel is also worried about proliferation and its security and the country’s military has recently held a unique exercise — dubbed "Dark Cloud" — aimed at preparing the country for potential biological, chemical, and radioactive attacks. While Israel’s Defense Ministry holds its "Orange Flame" exercise simulating a biological attack on an annual basis, "Dark Cloud" was the first time the Israeli defense establishment and emergency services simulated a radioactive "dirty bomb" attack, though the exercise was planned before the Syrian uprising’s start.  

Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons and requires states that join the treaty to destroy their stockpiles. Therefore, precise information on the nature and quantity of its suspected chemical agents is lacking. The Syrian government claims that it does not have a chemical weapons program, only research sites for medical civilian use. However, the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies estimate that the country has a chemical weapons program dating from the early 1980s that is one of the largest and most developed in the world. Syria is also suspected of having a biological weapons program, but it is believed to be far less sophisticated than its chemical program. Thanks to assistance and knowledge obtained from the Soviet Union (and later Russia), Egypt, West Germany, France, Iran, North Korea, and possibly other countries over a period of 20 years, Syria was able to acquire an offensive chemical weapons capability that continues to serve as the regime’s strategic deterrent against Israel’s assumed nuclear capability and, perhaps more important, as an insurance policy against potential domestic threats. Syria allegedly has large quantities of mustard gas and sarin, which the regime has integrated over the years into its vast repertoire of missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and airdropped munitions. Mustard gas is a blistering — though not necessarily fatal — agent that was used extensively in World War I and reportedly during the 1980 through 1988 Iran-Iraq War. Sarin, which is lethal if inhaled even in very small quantities, is the nerve agent that killed 13 people and sickened about 1,000 during a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 by the Japanese cult of Aum Shinrikyo. In addition to mustard gas and sarin, Syria may also be in possession of VX, a deadly nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment. In short, Syria’s chemical weapons program is thought to be massive and diverse and can be used in combat operations and delivered through various means.

With the Syrian army’s takeover of Homs, armed resistance against regime forces seems to have considerably abated. Homs was a crucial battle for both sides because the city was the epicenter of the uprising. The rebels’ defeat in Homs was a huge morale and strategic setback to their mission. As things currently stand, the FSA, which is now on the defensive, does not hold any substantial piece of land. "We are exhausted and depressed," one fighter said. "We don’t have enough weapons to defend ourselves." In this current strategic environment, the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons program seems secure and under the control of regime forces. However, realities on the ground can quickly change especially if regional and international powers decide to arm, train, and fund the FSA or even intervene militarily in support of the rebels. Should that happen and chaos gradually sweeps the country, six scenarios regarding the future of Assad’s chemical assets can be identified:

1. Deliberate use by the regime against civilians, rebels, Israel, or U.S. interests in the region: Lieutenant Abduleselam Abdulrezzak, a defector from the Syrian armed forces who reportedly worked in chemical labs has claimed that the Syrian military used chemical weapons against civilians in the Baba Amr area of Homs. The Russian Foreign Ministry strongly denied that the Syrian army used nerve gas in Homs allegedly under the supervision of Russian specialists. While nothing should be ruled out given the regime’s mass atrocities so far, Abdulrezzak’s and others’ testimony have not been independently confirmed or verified, and may be propaganda against the regime. However, it is possible that the regime could use chemical weapons against its domestic opponents in the future (there are unconfirmed reports that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982), but only under narrow circumstances — i.e., when facing overwhelming opposition and in a last bid for survival. The prevailing assumption is that such a strategy by Assad and his cronies is extremely risky and self-defeating. Surely Assad must know that the moment he uses these outlawed, mass destruction weapons NATO jets will come bombing his palace. That may be true and external military intervention should theoretically deter Assad from attacking his own people with chemical weapons, but what is unclear still is how Assad will weigh the costs and benefits of such a momentous decision, especially at a time when he may be facing an existential threat at home. He might calculate that he has a better chance of surviving a NATO onslaught than, for instance, a growing rebellion in Damascus. Furthermore, there is a sectarian dimension to his potential calculation. As leader of the Alawite sect, Assad may see himself as the guardian of his communal group. Should he sense that the end is near he and his entourage could have a strong incentive to use extraordinary means to defend themselves and prevent the extinction of their clan. Another factor that is unclear is the extent to which such a critical decision is taken by one man – Assad — or by a coterie of senior figures in the Assad regime. Would cooler heads prevail among the Syrian generals? Or would Bashar and his brother Maher, commander of the Republican Guard, decide to escalate to the point of no return?

2. Unauthorized use by radical generals or army units under fire: The regime’s deployment of its finest army and special forces units (who are all Alawi and loyal to Assad) to places like Hama, Homs, Latakia, and al-Safirah (a village which is approximately 12.5 miles southeast of the city of Aleppo) to guard the chemical weapons production facilities is indicative of Assad’s precautionary measures and his acute awareness of the game-changing effect of these assets. Should armed rebellion flare up again in areas that host chemical weapons facilities (Latakia and al-Safirah have been quiet so far) and munitions storage sites including Dumayr (25 miles northeast of Damascus), Khan Abu Shamat (36 miles east of Damascus), and Al Furqlus (in Homs) and government forces find themselves facing overwhelming opposition, the generals on the ground could decide, without Assad’s authorization, to use chemical weapons against their opponents. They could also be tempted to act preemptively, "using them before losing them." Strict orders by Assad are likely to be given to all units on the ground regarding the terms of use of "special weapons," but control may prove to be elusive in the fog of war and lack of discipline, compounded by extreme fears of revenge by the enemy, could reign supreme.

3. Transfer to other countries or sub-state actors: Should Assad start to feel that his grip on power is weakening he could decide to transfer some of his country’s chemical agents to his allies, such as Iran and Hezbollah. This would be an extremely risky course of action (Assad must know that any transfer of mass destruction weapons is perceived as a red line by Israel and the United States) and might precipitate external military intervention, but one possible incentive for Assad could be to bolster his allies’ deterrence capabilities against their adversaries, out of a sense of solidarity or firm belief in the trilateral strategic alliance. Another scenario in which Assad could be encouraged to transfer chemical weapons to his allies is a coup against his rule. Sensing that he is about to be toppled and thus lose control of the chemical arsenal, Assad could order whatever remaining units loyal to him to salvage and smuggle as much chemical agent as possible to Iran and Hezbollah, assuming either party will be willing to receive such sensitive materials.

4. Loss of control to terrorist groups: In the heat of intense battle and under circumstances of regime weakening as well as deepening and expanding involvement of terrorist elements on the Syrian battlefield, there is a possibility that chemical agents could fall under the control of al Qaeda. That there are 50 of these sites makes it even more likely. Al Qaeda has a strong presence in Yemen (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and Algeria (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), a still significant following in Iraq (al Qaeda in Iraq), and several cells in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon’s northern region. Despite testimony by U.S. military officials, there is no incontrovertible evidence of al Qaeda operating inside Syria as of now. Al Qaeda leaders have shown a strong interest over the years in acquiring weapons of mass destruction and it would be foolish not to assume that its cadres will have laser-like focus on the chemical weapons facilities and munitions storages that are scattered across the country.

5. Rebel attacks on sites: Unable to seize all chemical production facilities and munitions storage sites, rebels might opt to target some of them in an effort to deny government forces the ability to use chemical weapons at a particular location. But to cause considerable damage to the facilities, the rebels must have heavy weapons and artillery, which they currently lack. Even if they acquire heavy weapons in the future that can damage fortified buildings, this would still be an extremely risky strategy because air contamination would be an issue for both sides (unless the rebels receive gas masks and protective gear). Furthermore, the moment the rebels decide to escalate and hit chemical sites, government forces might retaliate with force and use planes to deliver chemical agents by air.

6. Rebel seizure of sites: Should the rebels seize some of the sites, safeguarding them from terrorist elements and government forces will be a huge challenge. It is one thing to seize a facility, yet quite another to protect it. Government forces can destroy a seized chemical weapons facility either by hitting it with a missile or rocket or bombing it by air, caring less about the contamination effects. What could deter government forces from launching an attack against a chemical weapons facility is the additional seizure by rebels of a missile base (establishing some form of balance of terror). Homs, Hama, Dair al Zour, al-Safirah, and Aleppo all host missile facilities, for example. Some of these facilities have missiles that are suspected to already contain chemical warheads, although it is uncertain which ones.

It is impossible to assess with any degree of precision the likelihood of these scenarios. Given the regional dimension of the Syrian crisis and its interconnectedness with several other strategic concerns related to the Middle East as a whole (including the problem of Iran’s nuclear program), the multidimensional challenge the United States faces in Syria could unfold in some very unpredictable ways. Yet none of these scenarios is so extreme or improbable that it does not merit careful consideration. Indeed, in this fluid environment and uncharted territory, everything is possible. This is a case that is rather unique in the history of the world (Libya is not even close given that late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi gave up his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and destroyed most of them before his regime collapsed). The Obama administration is doing the right thing by exercising caution on Syria, by talking to its allies about the myriad of security threats surrounding the crisis, by creating an international coalition to deal with the problem, and by closely monitoring any unusual activity on Syrian territory. Some additional measures can be taken to prevent worst-case scenarios. For example, an offer of immunity should be extended to members of the Syrian military who can protect the chemical sites until the cessation of hostilities and the arrival of international inspectors. Also, a strict warning should be issued to Assad’s government against the use or transfer of WMD under any circumstances (if this has not been done already through private channels). In parallel, an announcement by the Obama administration should be made that any use of such weapons during the conflict will be treated as a crime against humanity in addition to any the Syrian government may have already committed). None of these measures are guaranteed to succeed in deterring Assad from escalating, but should be done nevertheless to apply pressure on the Syrian president and influence his and his supporters’ cost-benefit calculations.

The goal of securing and controlling WMD in Syria, despite its critical importance, cannot be decoupled from the challenge of overall U.S. policy toward Syria. In other words, the safety and control of Assad’s chemical assets neither define nor drive U.S. policy toward Syria. Assad’s chemical assets may be extensive and deadly and they pose a threat to Syrians and regional and international security, but that does not make U.S. options for Syria — be it military intervention or military assistance to the rebels — any less difficult, costly, or risky. In fact, military intervention, if mishandled or if it spirals out of control, might make the goal of securing and controlling these nasty weapons harder to achieve. The same goes for a strategy that seeks to arm the rebels or establish safe havens and humanitarian corridors across the country’s borders. It is no wonder that President Obama and his top military brass are extremely hesitant to use kinetic force or send weapons into Syria. The country is a chemical powder keg ready to explode.

Bilal Y. Saab is Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Chen Kane is Senior Research Associate at CNS, and Leonard Spector is Deputy Director of CNS. CNS’s Javier Serrat provided research assistance.