How to Prevent the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

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Here's what the world can do about the country's potentially-lose stockpiles as the conflict intensifies.

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A boy stands in the ruins ofa building destroyed by the Syrian air force in Zamalka, near Damascus, on December 19, 2012. (Reuters)

Warnings by the United States and other countries threatening the Syrian regime with dire consequences if chemical weapons are used against rebel forces may have had the intended effect. Recent media reports suggest this concern has now diminished. It is just as plausible, however, that the regime had little intention of using its chemical weapons but fabricated the preparations that prompted the warnings to deter outside intervention in Syria's civil war.

Either way, it is wrong to assume the danger of chemical weapons use in Syria is receding. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe it could grow in the coming weeks and months.

Syria, which is not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention, is widely believed to possess sizeable stocks of different kinds of chemical weapons (CRS)--principally nerve (Sarin, VX) and blister (mustard gas) agents--that have been weaponized into bombs, artillery shells, and possibly warheads for delivery by missiles. How quickly this arsenal could be employed today is unclear from public reports, but it is prudent to believe that some, if not all of it, is operationally ready. Although the fighting to date has more than demonstrated the lethality of conventional weapons, the use of chemical agents would represent a significant escalation of the violence with potentially mass casualty consequences. It would also breach an international norm against the use of chemical weapons that is important to maintain.

Deliberate use of chemical weapons by government forces against either rebel groups or population centers considered sympathetic to their cause is certainly the scenario that has attracted the most concern. But it is just one of many conceivable scenarios to worry about.

For example, should rebel forces progressively gain the upper hand--as they seem to be doing--the regime or elements of the regime might retreat to predominantly Alawite areas of Syria to create a rump state. Chemical weapons could eventually be employed to deter further encroachment or defend these areas when they are assaulted. And if defeat looked inevitable, their use as a final act of defiance cannot be discounted.

Leaky Weapons

The United States and its international partners cannot assume, moreover, that they know of all the chemical weapons storage sites in Syria or that the movement of munitions from the known ones will be detected in a timely manner. Some may already have been secreted away by the regime as Muammar el-Qaddafi reportedly did after Libya had agreed to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons.

Maintaining tight command and control over units and personnel with access to chemical weapons will also become increasingly difficult as the regime collapses. For those in the field, any ambiguity about who is in charge and in the chain of command heightens the prospect of unauthorized use. Whether there is some pre-delegated authority to use these weapons under certain circumstances is also something be concerned about.

Another set of worrisome contingencies involve the capture and potential use of chemical weapons stocks by rebel forces. It is not hard to imagine how, in the heat of battle, chemical weapons could be turned against government forces or used in retribution for past atrocities. Some might even see their use as a way to trigger outside intervention. Other wildcard possibilities involve terrorist groups like Hezbollah acquiring chemical weapons in various ways as the Syrian regime crumbles.

Preventing these various threats from materializing clearly represents a much harder challenge than issuing warnings to the Syrian government. A broader, more nuanced strategy is required.

Though not conceived with potential chemical weapons use in mind, the elements of such a strategy can be found in the final report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former U.S. secretary of defense William Cohen. Their report advocated targeting each of the principal groups in any given atrocity situation with a tailored set of preventive measures.

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Paul B. Stares is the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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