Deadly Uncertainty: The Reason Syria's Chemical Weapons Are So Dangerous

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What happens to Bashar al-Assad's stockpile -- one of the largest in the world -- if the deeply divided and untrained rebels overthrow his regime?

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An undated photo provided by state media shows Syrian army tanks firing. (AP)

It looks like a perfect storm. Syria is believed to harbor one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons--which, for the time being, appear to be protected by well-trained Syrian troops. As violence in the country rages, however, Washington and its allies are eager for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power.

With Syrian opposition groups claiming that up to 17,000 people have died in the conflict, this sentence is an uncomfortable one: Assad's strong hold on power has so far, from a chemical-weapons standpoint, staved off a potential disaster without an easy fix. The U.S. cannot rely on the deeply divided and untrained Syrian rebels to control the stockpiles; there's little appetite in Washington for military intervention to secure them; and al-Qaida is in a country that also has long-standing ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon. All this means that Syria is virtually sure to become the next major proliferation challenge in the region for years to come.

The Obama administration and the Pentagon are keeping possible contingency plans for Syria's chemical weapons under close wraps, saying publicly only that they are closely monitoring the situation. But things just got more complicated: As The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, Syria has begun moving some of its massive chemical stockpiles out of storage facilities, sparking fears that Assad may consider deploying them against civilians or enemies. The U.S. still believes the weapons are under Assad's control--and some officials believe he may be trying to safeguard the material--but the latest development underscores what some worry is a fundamental lack of preparation in Washington for what might happen next.

"I am convinced that the administration needs to be much more aggressive in its contingency planning regarding chemical weapons from an operational standpoint," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said. "You have to go into this thinking, 'What if [Assad falls] tomorrow? Are we ready?' I can't talk about operational details. But I don't believe that we're ready. If the regime were to fall this week, I think we'd be in serious trouble."

Despite calls for a speedy transition in Syria, the nightmare scenario for chemical weapons would be the sudden collapse of Assad's power-- or for the security situation to quickly devolve as he gets desperate. The trained custodians of the chemical-warfare facilities scattered across the country could be called to fight more-pressing battles and abandon their posts. Or they might defect and sell the materials to the highest bidder, potentially to Hamas and Hezbollah. Potential wholesale looting means nonrational actors like al-Qaida, which Rogers affirmed already has a "significant" presence in the country, are more likely to obtain the weapons and try to use them in plots to strike Western targets.

Syria, one of the few countries that never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, is believed to have, among other things, mustard gas, a sarin nerve agent, and even VX. Analysts and officials also believe Syria has ballistic missiles that can be fitted with chemical warheads, and tens of thousands of shoulder-fired missiles that terrorists could use to target civilian aircraft.

In February, CNN cited a military planning estimate that 75,000 ground troops would be needed to secure Syria's chemical-weapons storage and production sites scattered throughout the country. The White House does not appear inclined to support such an intervention. Officials have publicly warned about the risks posed by Syria's sophisticated Russian-made air defenses. Any full-scale military operation is virtually certain to be long and difficult, with heavy risk of both coalition and civilian casualties. There's no guarantee troops would solve the problem--or that an international consensus could be reached to deploy them, especially with the not-so-distant memory of flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Even there, 200,000 U.S. and coalition troops were unable to secure documented sites of sophisticated explosives, which were looted and used in IEDs.

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Sara Sorcher a staff reporter (national security and foreign policy) for National Journal.

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