|Halabjah, Iraq - 1988|
Is Syrian President Bashar al-Asad about to order his armed forces to use chemical weapons on their own people? According to media outlets citing "U.S. officials," the Syrian military has mixed the chemical components that make up the nerve agent Sarin (GB). Sarin has been used in the past in neighboring Iraq - in 1988, Iraqi Air Force fighters dropped Sarin-filled bombs on the Kurdish town of Halabjah in northern Iraq, killing over 5,000 people. Later that year, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops during four major battles, making Iraq the only country to have used nerve agents on a battlefield.
Syria's chemical weapons are no secret. The Director of National Intelligence, in an unclassified report to Congress in 2006, provided this assessment of Syria's chemical and biological weapons, and the ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver them. It does not address Syrian air force fighter-bombers that can also carry chemical weapons. (See my earlier article, Syria's chemical weapons and the uprising.)
Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January to 31 December 2006. (Read the entire report).
Chemical and Biological. Syria continued to seek dual-use technology from foreign sources during the reporting period. Syria has had a chemical weapons program for many years and already has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, which can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missile. In addition, Syria is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX. We assess that Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its CW program, including precursor chemicals.
Syria's biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting limited biological agent development. We do not assess the Syrians have achieved a capability to put biological agents into effective weapons, however.
Ballistic Missile. Syria's ballistic missile program is a key component to its strategy to deter external threats and is a priority in defense planning and spending. Syria possesses one of the largest ballistic missile forces in the Middle East—composed of Scud-class liquid propellant short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), including Soviet—and North Korean—origin Scud missiles. Additionally, Syria fields the SS-21 Mod 2 SRBM. We judge that Syria's operational missile force can employ chemical as well as conventional warheads. Syria is developing a version of its Scud-D missile with greater accuracy and that is more difficult to intercept.
The Obama Administration has reacted with its usual vapid rhetoric.
"Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Asad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
If Bashar al-Asad thought there would really be serious consequences, he would not have given the order to his armed forces to ready the chemical weapons. Just like al-Asad's primary sponsor and supporter - Iran - the Syrian president does not take American threats seriously.
I hope Bashar is making a serious miscalculation. I hope that I have underestimated Barack Obama's understanding of the situation in the Middle East. I have been to Halabjah - I have seen the results of nerve gas attacks on defenseless civilians. I have been to the Iraqi battlefields in 1988 - I have seen the results of nerve gas attacks on Iranian troops.
Perhaps this is a gamble on al-Asad's part - "Someone grant me asylum or I'll go out with a bang."
If Bashar al-Asad descends to the level of Saddam Husayn and does use chemical weaspons, he needs to suffer the same fate as his Ba'thi cousin - delivered by either the Syrian people or an American missile. Unfortunately, our record of holding people "accountable" is pretty weak.